NEW YORK -- While retailers have given up on Santa creating a miracle deluge of Christmas sales in 1991, the president of May Co. said yesterday that results in the mid-Atlantic states and the Northeast have been a little better than expected.
"Let me emphasize the word 'little,' " said Thomas A. Hays, President of May, parent company for Hecht's and Lord & Taylor. "Nothing is easy, but it is brighter than we thought."
Sales have been holding steady in the Midwest but unexpectedly worsening in Southern California, he said in comments delivered at a panel on the industry's outlook that was attended by top executives from J. C. Penney Co. and Strawbridge & Clothier.
Big sellers this season have been watches, men's ties, and women's cosmetics and sportswear -- with an emphasis on petite sizes and stirrup pants -- and a number of particularly low-cost items.
"Who would have thought of gift towels as an item for 1991?" said W. R. Howell, chief executive of Penney's. "In fact, that is what happened."
Predictably, given the weak economy, poor sellers for the holiday season have been furniture, fine jewelry, electronics and anything else that is expensive or whose purchase can be delayed.
Despite widespread concern coming into the Christmas season, sales for Penney's and May were above the average for the year during November. "We were encouraged," said Mr. Howell, Penney's chief executive. "But our elation was short-lived."
Sales worsened abruptly in December.
"It's hard to understand how America could go to bed on Saturday [Nov. 30] with one demand attitude and wake up next day with another," Mr. Howell said. "But that's what happened."
For this year and next, sales should grow about 3 percent, said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist of the consulting firm Management Horizons of Columbus, Ohio. Taking inflation in account, that means no growth for the industry. The result could be widespread havoc for small or weak stores.
About 14,000 retailers will go bankrupt during 1991, Mr. Steidtmann said, up 35 percent from last year. A disproportionate number is in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, he added.
Having low-priced merchandise may be a way to survive. Francis Strawbridge, head of Philadelphia-based Strawbridge & Clothier, said that this month has been "a struggle" but that the company's Clover discount stores were doing well. He, like the other executives, thought that many shoppers had delayed buying because of the recession but would soon hit the stores.
"The last five days before Christmas will be heavier," he said. "They better be."