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Late surge can't save retail sales

Driven by a flurry of last-minute holiday shopping, same-store retail sales jumped up by 2.8 percent during the fourth week of December, but the 11th hour surge, welcome as it was, couldn't make up for weakness earlier in the month, and sales through the first four weeks of December were far lower than expected.

The Redbook Retail sales Average came in sharply behind plan for the four weeks month to date, posting a gain of 1.3 percent, substantially beneath a targeted increase of 2.1 percent.

In a striking reversal of recent sales patterns, department stores managed to outperform discounters for the week and month-to-date. Department store sales rose by 3.0 percent during the fourth week, compared with a smaller 2.6 percent increase at discounters. For the four-week period, department store sales slipped by 0.2 percent, just slightly behind a targeted drop of 0.1 percent. But discounters fared less well, with their sales climbing by 2.4 percent still missing the target of a 3.8 percent increase.

For some retailers, said Redbook analyst Catlin Levis, "Saturday was the second-biggest single shopping this year after Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving kickoff to the holiday season. Although the week was an improvement on the rest of the month, it could not deliver a miracle. Our model as a whole remained below plan month-to-date for December."

Weather may have played a part, at least in some parts of the country, and Levis said, "The business in the Northeast and Northwest may have been dampened by winter storms."

Shifting gears, retailers are now focusing their merchandising efforts to post-Christmas clearance, said Levis, especially at the more seasonal departments. "Stores with leaner inventories still need to markdown heavily to attract frugal shoppers into the stores."

Levis said, "The primary focus during the fourth week was on holiday seasonal business, which was dominated by gift and holiday categories, including electronics, jewelry, toys, cosmetics and home furnishings goods."

Redbook Retail Sales Average
Fourth week of December

Week ended 12/7 12/14 12/21 12/28 1/4 Month Target
*Including chain stores and traditional department stores.
Source: Redbook Retail Sales Average, a unit of Instinet, a Reuters company.
Department Stores* -0.7 -1.3 -1.7 3.0 -0.2 -0.1
Discounters 2.6 2.5 1.9 2.6 2.4 3.8
Redbook Average 1.1 0.8 0.3 2.8 1.3 2.1


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