11th hour buying spree falls short

Lured by last-minute bargains, holiday shoppers finally flocked to the malls as they picked up last-minute presents, pushing same-store retail sales up by 3.9 percent during the fourth week of December.

It was a big improvement over the lackluster increase of 2.9 percent recorded the week before, but still well beneath plan, according to Redbook Research.

Department stores saw the biggest improvement, with same-store sales rising by 1.7 percent during the eleventh-hour rush, last, substantially ahead of an anemic increase of 0.5 percent the prior week. Mass merchants' sales rose by 6.7 percent, ahead of the 4.8 percent gain the preceding week.

But it wasn't enough to save the month, and sales for the four weeks month-to date, while rising by 3.2 percent, fell short of a target of a 3.8 percent increase.

"The Christmas week provided the type of sales gains many retailers had been waiting for to bring the month more into line with revenue-growth expectations," said Redbook analyst Catlin Levis. But the gains weren't spread across the board. Levis observed, "Not all companies shared in the good fortune, though, and our retailer sample in the aggregate continues to lag its December target. However, certain retailers did report stellar gains, and found themselves back on plan, or close to it, after several weeks of sub-target activity."

As in recent years, "Retailers said most of the week's business was done on the 24th and 26th, the days immediately before and after Christmas. The pre-Christmas surge was in line with predictions of last-minute shopping, increasingly seen as a seasonal trend, while post-Christmas business was driven by price promotions."

The analyst added, "Although the week was a considerable improvement from the rest of the month, it could not deliver a miracle."

Having an increasingly important effect on holiday sales for bricks-and-mortar retailers are two relatively recent trends — internet shopping and the use of gift cards, for which sales aren't recorded until they're actually used after the holidays. "Internet sales retained their strong surge," said Levis, while "gift cards were on the rise."

Levis said, "With post-Christmas clearance sales starting Friday, many people took the day off. Millions of gift-card holders rushed to stores to search for bargains.

Redbook Retail sales Average
Fourth week of December

WEEK ENDED 12/06 12/13 12/20 12/27 1/03 MONTH TARGET
*Including chain stores and traditional department stores.
Source: Redbook Research Inc.
Department stores* 1.1 0.6 0.5 1.7 1.0 1.7
Discounters 5.0 4.9 4.8 5.7 5.1 5.4
Redbook Average 3.2 3.0 2.9 3.9 3.2 3.8

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