Retail sales surged in Dec. Post-holiday buying gives late lift to lackluster season


January 09, 1998|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

A surge in post-Christmas buying at the nation's stores helped boost December retail sales during an otherwise slow holiday season, retailers reported yesterday.

As the season failed to measure up to expectations for the third year in a row, retailers slashed after-Christmas prices and shoppers came out in force.

That last-minute rush saved the month for many retailers, with analysts characterizing the selling period as fair.

"If it hadn't been for the surge of selling that followed Christmas, it would have been very sad for most retailers," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, a New Jersey forecasting firm. "There's no question that Christmas is losing its strength as a shopping occasion."

Monthly sales results were mixed, varying from store to store.

"I think when the smoke clears and the markdowns are put into it, it will be fair," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting firm.

Retailing remained polarized, with upscale retailers, mass discounters and off-price stores faring best. Department stores that count on apparel sales struggled.

Sales rose 2.97 percent for department stores, 4.51 percent for specialty/apparel stores and 5.99 percent for discount stores, according to the Bloomberg Composite Same-Store Sales Index.

Among discount retailers, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported a 7.2 percent increase in stores open at least a year. Dayton Hudson Corp., bolstered by its Target discount chain, ended up 6.4 percent ahead of last December in same-store sales, reflecting consumers' demand for goods at bargain prices.

Gap Inc. managed to ride that wave as well, with its lower-priced Old Navy division helping drive up the retailer's overall sales by 10 percent.

Dress Barn Inc., a value-priced specialty store focusing on career fashions, reported a 6 percent rise in same-store sales.

But Kmart Corp. failed to make a dent in women's fashion sales, showing only a modest increase of 2.9 percent.

Department store results were mixed, with middle-priced retailers struggling the most. J.C. Penney Co. ended up with a disappointing 2.3 percent drop from last year, and sales at Federated Department Stores Inc., which owns Macy's, Bloomingdale's and other department stores, rose just 1 percent.

But upscale retailers Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and Saks Holdings Inc., the holding company for Saks Fifth Avenue, posted much stronger sales, with increases of 8.8 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively.

Sales at those stores, and at jewelers such as Tiffany & Co., which had a 15 percent increase in same-store sales, were fueled by consumers who have benefited from the rising stock market, analysts said.

At the onset of the holiday season, many retailers had hoped that low unemployment, low inflation and a robust stock market would produce one of the best seasons of the decade.

But many consumers held spending in check, sought bargains or bought trips and entertainment as gifts.

Categories such as toys and entertainment products made the month a success for some.

Sales at Toys 'R' Us Inc. rose 5 percent, driven by the popularity of video games, virtual pets, action figures and computer software. And Best Buy Co.'s sales jumped 13 percent, led by movie videos, compact discs, computer software and video games.

The retailer, which also sells computers, televisions and household appliances, might have pulled some business from toy retailers, analysts said.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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