Holiday business please some retailers

December 27, 1990|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

Santa Claus was good to the Johnston & Murphy shoe store in Towson which saw its gross sales jump 70 percent this Christmas compared with last year.

Actually, St. Nick had some help from the management of the specialty men's shoe store. The Nashville-based chain had its sales people call customers and personally tell them about discounts for Christmas.

"We've had a real good season," Don Adams, manager of the Johnston & Murphy at Towson Town Center, said yesterday. Adams said that beginning in November, he made 10 to 50 calls a day to the store's regular customers and sent out about 4,000 mailers.

Despite predictions that retailers would have a bad holiday season, some were pleased with business.

"The last four days were excellent for us. It looks like we have a chance to end the season near our planned goal," said Warren Harris, chairman of the board of Hecht's, which has eight outlets in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Harris said sales for the department store chain were ahead of last year's by about 5 percent.

Although that figure was 2 to 3 percent below expectations, Harris said he was pleased with December sales results.

Consumer traffic at Hecht's outlets yesterday was up 25 percent over last year's volume, Harris said.

"We had a reasonably good season," said John Fetting, owner of A. H. Fetting Co., a jewelry store in Towson Town Center.

Fetting said sales were below last year's level, but overall, the company did well.

"We expected [sales] to be less. People were a bit more guarded and more conservative," he said.

In addition to a slow economy and the crisis in the Middle East, Fetting said merchants at Towson Town Center had to contend with renovations which resulted in parking problems for customers.

"We exceeded our expectations . . . and clearly it was the best Christmas we ever had," Clark Johnson, chairman of Pier 1 Imports Inc., said Christmas morning. He said his stores had a 3 percent increase over 1989's holiday sales.

Johnson said the weakening economy actually helped his home furnishings and clothing business because consumers "traded down" or bought less expensive gifts this year. "People that normally bought gifts at higher-end shops came to Pier 1," he said.

Managers at Ross Dress For Less and Hechinger's in Baltimore County said sales were fairly good at their stores.

"This store did tremendous business during last week," said Daniel Villegas, assistant manager at the Ross located in the Chadwick Manor Shopping Center. He said his store actually met its sales quota for the period before Christmas Day.

Yesterday, retailers continued to tally receipts from the Christmas season amid economists' predictions of a recession.

Although many high-profile retailers reported a last-minute surge sales, the extra business was not enough to turn the entire season around.

Nationally, many merchants reported that their sales at stores open more than one year known in the retailing industry as same-store or comparable-store sales were flat or down from a year ago.

Sales that are little changed or up only slightly are considered poor because when the effects of inflation are subtracted, a store's business may be down from levels of a year earlier. Consumer prices rose 6.4 percent through the first 11 months of this year, meaning many stores' modest gains were wiped out.

Predictions of a poor Christmas season were issued back in August as sales of clothing, furniture, toys and appliances stalled in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Sales for most retailers did not recover in September, October and November, normally a time when business accelerates.

Sears Roebuck and Co., the nation's largest retailer, was among those whose sales were hurt this season by consumers worried about the economy and the Middle East.

"We're slightly below expectations," Matthew Howard, Sears' senior vice president for marketing, said Monday in Chicago, where the firm is headquartered.

However, during the last three days before Christmas, shoppers responded to a new Sears advertising campaign and a new round of price reductions on a variety of merchandise.

"We're pleased. We felt we got a good balance in all of the businesses," Howard said. Last weekend left Sears' inventories "in good shape," he said.

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