Retailers remain anxious as last-minute shoppers head to the malls the day before Christmas


Thursday, December 23rd 2004, 7:57 pm
By: News On 6


NEW YORK (AP) _ Struggling with disappointing seasonal sales, the nation's retailers remained on edge _ wondering if they would get the big surge in last-minute Christmas spending they needed to meet holiday forecasts.

Already, Wall Street analysts were resigned to the fact that the 2004 shopping season won't be stellar. The question was whether the last-minute boost would be enough.

The exceptions have been online shopping, which is on track to be at the high end of projections, and luxury stores, which have continued with robust sales from their well-heeled customers.

That means merchants are once again finding themselves in the same position as they were last year, waiting for those last-minute shoppers, who seem to be delaying their buying even later than a year ago. Last year, a late spending surge gave struggling retailers a better-than-expected holiday season. In 2002, however, the last-minute boost before and after Christmas was not enough.

``This was another hope and prayer week for retailers,'' said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C.

Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers, believes the momentum picked up this week, but ``whether it is enough to meet their forecasts is the question.''

Niemira _ who cut the trade group's holiday forecast range to 2.5 percent to 3 percent earlier in the month _ is sticking with his current forecasts. He had originally projected that same-store sales for the November and December period would be up anywhere from 3 percent to 4 percent.

The estimate is based on sales at stores opened at least a year, known as same-store sales. Same-store sales are considered the best indicator of a retailer's health.

Meanwhile, Internet research firm comScore Networks Inc. expects that online sales in November and December are tracking at the high end of its forecast of a 23 percent to 26 percent gain from the year-earlier period.

The final days before Christmas and post-holiday business, boosted in part by gift card sales, have become increasingly important for retailers. Gift card sales are not recorded until the cards are redeemed.

Retailers are even trying to extend the online season. In fact, retail giant Wal-Mart's online store reported that online gift sales tripled from a year ago, helped this past week by a sales spurt in virtual gift cards, which allow the giver to send festive messages, along with the gift amount, via e-mail.

Still, Christmas Eve day is not traditionally a big sales generator, though with merchandise like cashmere sweaters, coats and jeans piling up on stores' floors, merchants are hoping for big sales.

Mid- to-low-priced stores like J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Target _ who have wooed customers with expanded hours and deep discounts _ are doing it again at the season's finale. From Wednesday through Friday, J.C. Penney Co. had a 7 a.m. opening, offering deals on jewelry and coats. Sears offered discounts of between 40 to 60 percent on jewelry and 25 percent to 30 percent off of watches from Monday through Friday.

Those discounts are likely to be stepped up even more, after Christmas, particularly in apparel, according to Tamara Pattison, vice president of products for Cairo.com, an online shopping resource that helps consumers track deals locally.