Retailers Hope to Save Slow Holiday Sales

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NEW YORK -- The nation’s merchants cut prices even deeper on Sunday, the day after Christmas, in hopes of squeezing more sales out of what’s winding up to be an unimpressive holiday season.

After struggling with disappointing holiday sales, retailers were cheered by stronger sales at the nation’s malls this past week, but are relying even more on shoppers to do more buying — and less returning — in the week after Christmas to meet their sales goals. And with the ever increasing popularity of gift cards, merchants hope customers will quickly use their gift cards, which are recorded as sales only when they are redeemed.

The only few bright spots have been online shopping, with sales at the high end of projections, and luxury stores, which have continued with robust sales from their well-heeled customers, who have benefited from the economy’s recovery.

That means merchants are once again finding themselves in the same position as they were last year, relying on the final days before and post-holiday sales to save the season. Last year, a late spending surge gave struggling retailers a better-than-expected holiday season, delivering them solid gains over the year-ago period. In 2002, however, the last-minute boost before and after Christmas was not sufficient to overcome December’s earlier weakness.

“Last-minute shoppers have decided the holiday season for retailers,” said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman at the National Retail Federation. The industry association is still sticking with its forecast for a 4.5 percent gain in total sales for November and December. Those figures exclude restaurant and auto sales.

“It won’t be the best holiday season on record but it won’t be the worst,” she added.

With many retailers, particularly in apparel, stuck with more merchandise than a year ago at this time, worries are mounting that profits will be eroded as deeper discounts will be needed to clear out excess merchandise. Of course, that’s only good news for shoppers seeking deals, particularly at mid-priced merchants like Sears, Roebuck and Co. that cater to middle- and low-income shoppers. Those consumers have been more vulnerable to the economy’s woes and have been focused on low prices.

In fact, starting at 7 a.m., Sears will find an additional 20 percent of already reduced apparel for up to 60 percent savings. In addition, all televisions and home theater systems will be on sale, and there will be 50 percent off of all toys and 50 to 75 percent of all Christmas shop items.

The final days before Christmas and post-holiday business, boosted in part by gift card sales, have become increasingly important for retailers.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, the seven-day period ended Dec. 27 accounted for 20.6 percent of holiday sales in 2003, up from 19.6 percent in 2002.

The seven-day period ended Jan. 3 accounted for 14.1 percent in 2003, up from 12.8 percent in 2002.