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Many Stores See Last-Minute Shopping Surge : * Retailing: Buyers wait until Christmas Eve, seeking bargains. Despite the eleventh-hour tide, the holiday season appears to disappoint many firms.

December 25, 1991|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — Stores were crowded in the final hours of the Christmas shopping season as bargain hunters and procrastinators gave retailers a much-needed last-minute sales surge.

Many stores reported strong business as the season ended. But in spite of the big finish, Christmas of 1991 appeared to be a disappointment for many retailers.

Results were expected to vary from retailer to retailer, with discounters and some specialty stores likely to have stronger results than department stores and general merchandisers.

Shoppers mobbed Sears, Roebuck & Co. stores as the season waned, said Matt Howard, senior vice president for marketing.

Howard shied away from pinning a definitive label on the season. He said only that Sears had a strong start and finish but a weaker-than-expected first 2 1/2 weeks of December.

When asked how business compared to that of healthier economic times, he responded: "This will not be a legendary Christmas."

The weak economy has clouded the Christmas season for consumers and retailers. Shoppers have said that they were spending less on gifts and seeking bargains because of concerns about the economy and their own job security.

Discounter Kmart Corp. has been a beneficiary of consumers' caution, said Orren Knauer, director of investor relations.

Monday was "an enormous day," he said. He predicted that Kmart's December sales would be 8% to 9% higher than in 1990.

Kmart and rival discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, appeared likely to outperform the rest of the retail industry this season.

Thomas J. Tashjian of First Manhattan Co. joined other securities analysts in predicting that retailers' overall sales will be little changed from the depressed levels of Christmas, 1990.

"No matter how we want to try and approach it, the recession is there," he said. "The consumer has decided to go ahead and tighten up."

Wal-Mart said Monday it was pleased with sales. But spokesman Don Shinkle described the season as tough.

The quest for lower prices also brought more shoppers to BJ's Wholesale Clubs, said John Levy, president of BJ's parent, Waban Inc.

Although warehouse retailers are best known for selling mass quantities of food and household products at low prices, many also offer discounts on appliances, clothes and other gift items.

Levy said the weak economy was evident despite his company's gains.

"In total, the customer may buy for as many people as a year ago, but she's spending, per person, probably less," he said.

Sears' Howard said consumer behavior changed significantly this Christmas.

"We're seeing customers purchasing more small-ticket items than in previous years," he said.

Howard also saw a shift in the kinds of gifts people were buying, with bed and bath items more popular as shoppers sought practicality. J. C. Penney Co. also reported that home furnishings were big sellers.

Many retailers, who went into the season with lowered expectations, were happy to reach Christmas, 1990, levels.

John Devine, chief executive of Child World Inc., sounded cheerful as he reported "excellent" weekend sales and predicted: "This December will be almost even with last year."

Pier 1 Imports Inc.'s chairman, Clark Johnson, also sounded pleased as he forecast that sales would be "about even with where we were a year ago."

Many consumers shopping Tuesday were looking for bargains.

Peter Macklin was walking along Manhattan's Sixth Avenue with six large Saks Fifth Avenue bags. But he was wasn't done shopping yet.

"This is the first year I waited until the last minute, and I'm actually lucky because I've bought everything on sale," he said. He said he usually starts shopping just after Thanksgiving but was too busy with work this year.

Mary Kelly was getting 25% off two belts at a Plymouth women's apparel store in Manhattan. "Waiting for the last minute pays because the stores are desperate for sales," she said.

Wayne Franklin, shopping in Chicago, said the economy has affected his buying habits. He waited until the last minute because of "better deals and more sales."

Some latecomers paid a price for tardiness--retailers who had kept tight inventories had run out of some merchandise.

Larry White of Lower Moreland, Pa., found disappointment while shopping in Philadelphia.

"I'm not finding what I want," he said. "It seems the stores are being more conservative about what they order."

Even on Christmas Eve, some people were waiting for even better prices.

Wendy Jamerson, shopping in Atlanta, said, "I want to wait until Thursday because the prices will be lower."

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