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Sales Lag as Consumers Bide Their Time

It's starting to look like Santa is coming late again this year, with sputtering sales during the first week of December getting the all-important holiday season off to a sloppy start as consumers trained to wait for bargains sat on the sidelines.

Shoppers who did show up were buying bigger-ticket items, but fewer customers actually made it out to the malls, putting overall sales under pressure, and triggering scattered early promoting.

Same-store sales came in well beneath plan, according to the Johnson Redbook Index, rising just 1.8 percent above year-ago levels, and lagging behind a forecast of 2.6 percent growth.

Department stores especially had a tough time of it, their same-store sales slipping 0.1 percent, compared with targeted growth of 0.9 percent. Discounters, the big engine driving the retail scene, missed their target as well, with 3.4 percent growth coming in beneath a target of 4 percent.

Measured on a month-over-month basis, same-store sales declined 0.8 percent from November levels, compared with a flat target.

“Sales were mixed in the first week of December, but below plan overall,” said Redbook Analyst Catlin Levis. “Retailers said average transaction tickets were generally ahead of last year, but customer counts were down.”

Levis added, “Holiday business continued its post-Thanksgiving slumber, however, note that the pause is typical of the first week of December, and business will likely steadily build up toward Christmas. This disproportionate sales pattern has intensified in recent years as customers have learned to shop either at the last minute before the holiday or in the week after Christmas to exploit merchant markdowns. Also, the week of the 25th contains two additional pre-Christmas shopping days over last year, which is expected to have an appreciable positive impact.”

The Redbook analyst said, “Some have indicated that inventory levels are higher than they should be, but these appeared for now to be isolated cases rather than an industry theme. It is too early in the season to expect widespread discounting, although some retailers have disclosed they are using it selectively to clear problem areas. Sales leaders in the week did not feature toy and gift categories as strongly as might be expected this time of year, another possible indication of consumers deferring holiday shopping until the last minute.”

Johnson Redbook Retail Sales Index
First week of December

Week ended 12/4 12/11 12/18 12/25 month target
*Including chain stores and traditional department stores.
Source: Johnson Redbook Index
Department stores* -0.1 -0.1 0.9
Discounters 3.4 3.4 4.0
Redbook Average 1.8 1.8 2.6


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