Sales are spotty as Christmas nears Merchants say season shaping up as average

December 20, 1996|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The glimmer of gold may be lighting up Christmas for the wealthiest, but retailers say the majority of shoppers aren't spending big this year.

With less than a week before the big day, retailers say they will have an average selling season.

"Nobody is euphoric," said Mark Millman of Millman Search Group, a Lutherville-based national retail consulting firm. "It is spotty around the country."

High-end luxury items such as jewelry are selling well. But overall, most surveys indicate a 4 percent to 5 percent increase in sales over last year.

That would represent a moderate increase given that 1995 was a below-average season for retailers.

A fluke of the calendar may be as important as consumer confidence this year, retail analysts say. With five fewer days in the traditional buying season -- Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve -- retailers will have to do 15 percent better each day just to make up the difference.

A survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers reported a 21.5 percent increase in sales at specialty stores in regional malls for the end of the second week of shopping. But that increase has to be put in perspective, said John Konarski, vice president of research. When adjusted for the calendar, he said, ICSC predicts a 4 percent to 6 percent increase in sales. "The season is a good season," he said.

At Towson Town Center, sales appear to be better than last year, said Leigh Bates, marketing director. "The majority of retailers are happy. They are performing better than last year," she said.

Early last week, the mall began to see the rush, with Saturday sales in specialty stores growing 25 percent from Dec. 7 to Dec. 14.

But not everyone is as optimistic. "We are not doing as well as last year," said Steve Silber, owner of Tops 'N Bottoms, an independent retailer with two stores, one in White Marsh and one in Eastpoint. He said consumers are extremely price-conscious this year and seem to be lured into stores only by sales.

"The consumer depth is not there," he said. "The mall [Eastpoint] is not packed or anything."

"I think it is an average year at best," said Timothy F. Finley, chairman and chief executive officer of the Hampstead-based Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc., whose stores in the Baltimore area have actually done better than he expected.

The Northeast has generally lagged behind the rest of the country, and some of Bank's stores prove the point, Finley said.

The company's stores in Boston and New York are not doing as well as those farther south, he said.

This week, TeleCheck Services Inc. reported a solid 5 percent gain for the first 17 days of the season in stores that have been open at least a year.

But in Maryland, TeleCheck said, sales were below the national average, showing only a 2.4 percent increase. In Baltimore, the nation's largest check-clearing company said, sales were up 1.2 percent.

In an informal survey of retailers in the region, Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association, said JTC retailers are generally pleased so far because they have done better than last year. Some jewelry stores are reporting double-digit percentage increases above last year, he said.

At Dahne and Weinstein, for instance, sales have been very good. Stephen Weinstein, president of the company, said November sales were the best in the store's 60-year history.

Saquella said most retailers think sales will increase by 5 percent unless shoppers are kept at home by poor weather in the final days before Christmas.

Those final days, he said, will be particularly important for the small independent stores not located in malls, which tend to do better in the last couple weeks before Christmas.

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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