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Retail sales heat up as weather cools

NEW YORK -Given the sluggish retail sales of late, most retailers were not sure of just what this holiday season would bring them.

However, most received a cheery reception from customers for the first official holiday shopping weekend of Nov. 24 to 26 (See page 14). Several retailers, in fact, had record sales for Black Friday (Nov. 24), while others were cautious about the rest of the season.

Not surprisingly, cold weather-related products were the big winners for that weekend, thanks to falling temperatures for much of the country. In addition, home products emulating the Christmas spirit were on many shopping lists.

Sears, Hoffman Estates, IL, posted record sales volume on Black Friday. "We had high double-digit increases," said Charles Domingue, dmm. "And we had a strong showing in all winter-related products," including flannel, down and blankets. Products with Christmas motifs, he added, which included throws, decorative pillows and bath, did "significantly better than last year. And snowmen are a great theme for us."

Domingue continued, "The consumer is definitely looking for new, fun and value-whether it's a new pattern in quilts, a new motif in Christmas or new colors in towels. The value equation has to be there. They want more for less."

For Kmart, the holiday season to date has recorded high single-digit sales in home textiles, said Steve Ryman, vp, home and Martha Stewart Everyday. In fact, Ryman noted, "while home textiles seasonal business has surpassed our expectations, we haven't had the same results in the hard side of home."

Leading the hit parade for Kmart are the more expensive bath sets-$9.99 to $12.99-said Paula Paquette, divisional vice president, home fashions.

In contrast, she remarked, "the standard Kmart 99-cent fingertips have slowed down." In table linens it is gold and glitter with poinsettia motifs at opening price points.

Fleece from the Martha Stewart Everyday program in solids and plaids have been so strong, Kmart had to reorder, she added. And an ethnic program of lotion pumps as an African American Santa Claus has been a winner.

ShopKo, Green Bay, WI, also hit its largest sales day ever on that Friday, said Rick Ausick, senior vp, gmm. "We were pretty pleased with it," he said. ShopKo also increased its inventories for that weekend, based on last year's sales, and that proved to be a good move, he said.

However, Ausick wasn't sure if that would continue throughout. "The rest of December moves along until the last 10 days or so," he said, when business picks up with last-minute shopping. "We're still going to battle it out until the end...Black Friday is not an indicator of the season."

Warmth products did well for the company, Ausick said, including flannel and throws, especially products with lodge looks. The area and accent rug business was also good, as were Pillow Buddies, a Crown Crafts product for kids that was more aggressively priced this year than last.

Stein Mart, Jacksonville, FL, expected business to be good, and it was, according to Pat Stagner, dmm. The success stories seem to be across the board, she said, especially in the better goods. For example, cotton sheets with high thread counts have been doing well. The decorative pillow business has been strong, as have down comforters for the past month. Embellished towels have also done well, especially ones featuring the animal trend. "Themes are driving the business," she said. "We're pulling merchandise from different areas and it's working."

"Sensational" is how Tom Fraser, dmm for soft home, termed the weekend sales for Gottschalks, Fresno, CA. "We had double-digit increases; but we did that last year as well, so it's a tradition." Fraser chalked up the strong sales to good crowds, cool weather and heavy advertising. Products that did well were again weather related: down, throws and blankets.

Business for Redmond, WA-based Eddie Bauer was "better than it had been," said Harvey Kanter, vp and gmm, which was good news after the "tough fall" the company experienced. But based on the weekend, there's "definitely a change of business, and the expectations are good over the next five to six weeks."

Because of the cold weather, Kanter said, down products, which were soft but picked up in the last few weeks, were "tremendous." Flannel was also impressive, especially product that was holiday inspired and novelty because of the "giftability." A novelty oversized fleece throw at $49.99, for example, was one product that did very well, and it was more of an expensive product for fleece. "We doubled last year's numbers in fleece," he said. "It's a cornerstone business for Eddie Bauer."

Corte Madera, CA-based Restoration Hardware was "encouraged by the sales," said Rebecca Thomas, investor relations coordinator. Several products that did very well, said Dave Glassman, director of marketing, included Scottish throws in a wool and chenille blend, a reversible lap duvet of combed cotton and a reversible wool throw from Woolrich.

The Thanksgiving weekend is usually not a peak shopping period for the Spiegel catalog, said Chris Crockett, spokesperson for the Downers Grove, IL-based company. But the first week after that holiday the catalog usually more than doubles its sales. Already Spiegel has seen an 18 percent increase in sales through the third quarter, and it expected to see continued growth in the fourth quarter, she said. The home textiles products that did well for the catalog included kids bedding and luxury bedding.

But sales were "disappointing" for Burlington Coat Factory, Burlington, NJ, said Richard Rynda, vp and merchandise manager. "Sales were flat. They were equal to last year." However, he said he's staying optimistic, and hoping for five to 10 percent increases in home. "We'll have an additional layout in December to generate sales...It has to get better," he said. "The goods have shipped, and we didn't cancel much. We own the goods."

Several areas did do well, Rynda said, though there were "no shining stars." Accessory pieces, like decorative pillows, kitchen, embellished and decorative towels did well, as did bath products like rugs. "People are dressing up their homes, getting ready for the holidays." The company's new Christopher Lowell boutiques also were a hit, as were warmth products like down comforters.

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