Stores busy, but not frantic Many retailers on track for seasonal gains of 4% to 5%; Some mobbed, some lonely; All in all, it just wasn't the 'type of weekend retailers needed'


NEW YORK -- Retail sales picked up during the final weekend before Christmas, though they didn't reach the stampede levels hoped for by most shopkeepers, analysts and retailers said yesterday.

The strong-but-not spectacular sales put many retailers on track to meet forecasts for gains of 4 percent to 5 percent for the holiday season. Still, strong sales yesterday and today -- the last two days of the season -- are crucial for some chains to meet those expectations.

"A lot of retailers expected an extraordinary burst of sales because there are five fewer shopping days, but it didn't happen," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report.

"Some of the stores were mobbed, some of the stores were deserted."

Sales started out slowly after the Thanksgiving holiday, but have been building the past two weeks. Saturday is typically the biggest sales day of the year, and this past weekend was no exception, retailers said.

Still, the increase in weekend shopping wasn't nearly as strong as a year ago, said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, when a late surge pushed overall holiday sales into the positive numbers.

Sales ended up rising 2 percent for the season, one of the smallest gains in a nonrecessionary year in decades. "This is not the type of weekend retailers needed to achieve the 5 percent to 8 percent sales increase they were looking for," said Beemer.

Of the 800 consumers that Beemer's company polled Sunday, 12 percent said they hadn't finished Christmas shopping and 7 percent said they may have additional shopping to do.

Analysts have attributed the lackluster sales to a number of things, but most cite the record levels of consumer debt as the main reason shoppers are not spending as freely as in the past.

Retailers and mall managers generally said weekend sales were strong, but few had results yet.

"Sales on Saturday and Sunday were extremely strong, with many stores saying that Saturday was the best day of the holiday season," said Karen McDonald, spokeswoman for the Taubman Centers, which owns and manages 21 malls.

The majority of stores she spoke with said that their sales increases would be in the single digits for the season, though estimates were "all over the board."

Toys, a staple of the holiday season, moved briskly.

"Our weekend business exceeded expectations both days and today is going great," said Katie McKay, manager of an FAO Schwartz store at the Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, N.Y.

Carson Pirie Scott & Co., a Midwestern department store chain, said sales were strong and met the company's expectations, though an official wouldn't disclose what it expected.

"Higher-end apparel continues to sell well, as does jewelry and sweaters," said Edward Carroll, vice president of marketing for the company.

Sales yesterday and today look stronger than anticipated, said John Konarski, vice president of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers, which tracks sales at specialty stores in malls.

"I think we are well on the way to a 4 percent to 6 percent gain," he said.

While luxury goods have done well all year, the majority of shoppers are looking for affordable gifts, said Barnard. That's why big-ticket items such as computers aren't selling well while shops featuring smaller items such as Williams-Sonoma Inc. and Crate & Barrel tend to be crammed with shoppers.

"People are looking for gifts that won't break them," said Barnard. "They are trying desperately to get out of debt and that is where a lot of their dollars are going."

Pub Date: 12/24/96

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