Sales are up at several big retailers with the countdown to Christmas underway, but some poor performers still are hoping for a last-minute boost from late-season shoppers.
Consumers remain unenthusiastic about apparel, analysts said. Specialty apparel chains and other clothing stores are seeing less robust sales as shoppers funnel their money into appliances, home furnishings and electronic toys.
"Anything that plugs in" is hot at catalogue giant Spiegel Inc., said spokeswoman Debbie Koopman.
That trend extends into Southern California--leaving a spotty sales record. Retailers that offer goods for the home--department stores such Sears, Roebuck & Co. and specialty retailers such as Bed, Bath & Beyond--are registering strong sales in the region.
Holiday season sales in the Southland will rise about 1% to 3% over last year--a bit weaker than the rest of the country, predicted Ira Kalish, a Los Angeles-based retail economist at Management Horizons, a division of Price Waterhouse. Kalish last month had projected a 1% to 2% increase but said his expectations are now slightly higher.
Some retail economists believe there is pent-up demand for goods such as consumer electronics, furniture and appliances. They say many consumers have more cash because many refinanced their homes to take advantage of lower interest rates and are using that money to buy big-ticket items.
On the other hand, specialty retailers such as the Limited and chains that rely more on clothing sales--Mervyn's among them--are having more difficulty in the Southland and other parts of the country. Ross Stores Inc. announced Monday that sales in December have been less than expected. The Newark, Calif.-based chain of discount apparel stores said sales were down from last year on a comparable store basis.
Sales at most retailers, however, are at or above their own projections, said Merrill Lynch analyst Daniel Barry. But last week was not as strong as the two previous weeks due in part to consumers delaying shopping until Friday, which is a holiday at many companies.
Johnson Redbook Service says it expects December sales in the nation to be up 9% to 10%, compared to an 11.9% increase posted in the same period last year by department stores, discounters and major chains.
Kurt Barnard, a retail consultant and publisher of Retail Marketing Report, is less optimistic. Barnard said he expects sales in stores open at least a year to be up 4% to 4.5% compared to a 6% increase in same-store sales during the same period last year.
"Sales have been very erratic," Barnard said. "Clothing sales have been really poor, while merchandise intended for the homes is going gangbusters."
The shift toward so-called hard-line goods away from apparel is causing clothing stores to offer a variety of promotions, including cut-out newspaper coupons and limited-hour sales to lure customers.
Kmart Corp, the nation's second-largest retailer, is seeing gains of just one to two percentage points among its discount stores open at least a year, said Orren Knauer, director of investor relations. But the company has big hopes for the final days before Christmas.
"It's going to come down to the last two or three days," he said.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. had its best day of the year on Saturday, said spokesman Perry Chlan. The percentage gain for sales on Saturday over the prior year was in the high single digits.
Consumers, showing they have put recession worries behind, are getting out their credit cards. Charges on the Sears credit card are running ahead of last year, and the company also is seeing strong use of Visa, MasterCard and American Express, Chlan said.
Visa USA Inc. said it authorized $12.8 billion in sales to retailers between Thanksgiving and last Friday, up 28% from the same period last year.
The rise in credit card use might not point to a big rise in holiday spending, analysts said. Rather, it could reflect consumers substituting charge cards for cash to get special awards such as frequent flier miles on airlines.