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December comps on plus side for most key retailers

New York - The harsh winter weather dumping snow over swaths of the country could not keep the sun from shining at select stores in December, when almost all of the 13 key retailers tracked by HTT posted same stores sales gains.

Only Stein Mart was unable to best year-over-year sales during the critical holiday selling season, posting a 1.9% decline in comps and a 2-3% dip in sales to $166.3 million from last December's $170.2 million.

Ironically, it Stein Mart that cited home textiles specifically as one of its three top-performing categories for the month. The others were ladies' career sportswear and accessories.

Soft home was among the "best-performing" businesses for The Bon-Ton Stores during the five-week period.

"Our December comparable store sales came in positive over the prior year period despite severe snow storms, which we estimate impacted our sales by approximately 150 to 200 basis points," explained Tony Buccina, vice chairman and president, merchandising.

He added that Bon-Ton "ended the month with inventories fresher than prior year. Our remaining fall inventories are priced aggressively and we are well positioned for a successful January semi-annual home and furniture sale."

Duckwall-Alco's 1.1% comp gain last month further pushed the 23-state regional discounter on its turn-around track. The company successfully delivered a 0.4% same-store sales increase from August through December, recuperating from a six-month sweep of comp decreases in the first six months of 2010.

The home décor business wasn't a bright spot in the chain's holiday period and performed below company trend, said Rich Wilson, president and ceo.

Home proved a drag on December performance at Target Corp., which nonetheless reported a modest comp gain of 0.9% for the month.

"December sales were below expectations, as strength in grocery and apparel was offset by softness in electronics, toys and some home categories," said Gregg Steinhafel, chairman, president and ceo. "Sales in some key gift-giving categories moved earlier into the holiday season, and lower margin items drove a higher portion of sales than expected."

Off-price chain competitors Ross Stores in Pleasanton, Calif., and TJX Companies in Framingham, Mass., were equally satisfied with their respective 4.0% and 2.0% December comp increases which exceeded expectations for both.

"I am extremely pleased with December's sales results, as we significantly exceeded our plans during this important period," said Carol Meyrowitz, president and ceo, TJX Cos. "Our 2% comp store sales growth was achieved on top of a very strong 14% increase last year, a much more difficult comparison than those faced by most other retailers, with our largest business, Marmaxx, delivering a 2% comp store sales increase over a 15% increase last year. Comp store sales continue to be driven by growth in the number of customer transactions as value, fashion, and great brands continue to resonate with customers."

Ross Stores' Michael Balmuth, vice chairman and ceo, said both sales and margins in December "were well ahead of our expectations."


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