NEW YORK -- Sales petered out during Christmas week, dashing retailers' hopes of a last-minute rush to salvage what's become a disappointing holiday season, two reports yesterday showed.
The pair of weekly surveys of large chains such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. turned up lower-than-expected sales last week. Bank of Tokyo- Mitsubishi/Schroder Wertheim said sales rose 1 percent while LJR Redbook Research reported a 0.6 percent gain.
Slow sales during what's usually the busiest week of the shopping season mean that many retailers won't do as well as they hoped. Shares of Nordstrom Inc., Saks Holdings Inc., American Eagle Outfitters Inc. and Marks Bros. Jewelers Inc. have fallen the past week on fears of lower-than-expected sales or profits.
Shoppers were "a little cautious," said Sally Wallick, an analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker. "They didn't throw caution to the wind as far as we can tell."
Retail sales may get a boost in coming months amid evidence that the U.S. economy continues its six-year expansion. Consumer confidence in December rose to the highest level since 1989 while new-home sales were surprisingly strong in November.
Sales at stores open at least a year, a key barometer known as same-store sales, were unchanged for the week ended Saturday, according to the BTM/Schroder Wertheim report. That's the smallest increase since February and down from a 4.8 percent increase the week before.
That puts the industry on track for gains of 3.5 percent to 4 percent for the season, Schroder Wertheim said, down from the 4 percent to 4.5 percent it expected last week.
"This is not the mark of a strong holiday season," said Dana Saporta, an economist with Stone McCarthy Research.
Redbook, which recently began tracking same-store sales, said sales rose 3.8 percent from the same week last year.
Consumers have held back on spending because they are loaded down with record levels of debt and bankruptcies, and are saving for retirement and college education bills. Also, retailers are offering few enticing items.
Robert Dederick, an economist with the Northern Trust Co., said Christmas is running on par with the rest of the year, which means retailers should not have expected much to begin with.
"Sales have been moderate all year and there's no reason to think that would change at Christmas," he said.
While sales of clothing and toys such as Tickle Me Elmo and Nintendo 64 have been strong, other areas such as consumer electronics have been week.
"I said that this was going to be the weakest Christmas that we have seen in two decades, and I think the numbers are bearing me out," said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group. He has forecast a 1.5 percent sales increase for the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period.
The holiday sales numbers are somewhat distorted because Thanksgiving fell later this year, shortening the season by five days. However, the Mitsubishi/Schroder numbers are adjusted as much as possible to account for that, said Mike Niemira, an analyst with Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.
"It has been very mixed; some stores came in very high, some saw drops as much as 20 percent," he said.
Mid-price department store chains are expected to fare the best in December, with Sears seen reporting the highest increase at 8 percent. Sales are expected to rise 6 percent at J. C. Penney Co. and 2 percent at May Department Stores Co.
Federated Department Stores Inc.'s sales are expected to be unchanged, while Dayton Hudson Corp.'s are expected to drop 4 percent.
At major discount stores, sales at Wal-Mart are expected to rise 5 percent, while sales at Kmart Corp. are expected to rise 1.5 percent.
Same-store sales are considered the best measure of a retailer's results because they don't include the effects of store openings, closings and expansions in the past year.
Pub Date: 1/01/97