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Nice for shoppers, so-so for merchants Markdowns appear after retail sales apparently fall short


If an early survey is right, this holiday shopping season will end up being a disappointing one for many retailers.

The International Council of Shopping Centers said yesterday that its annual survey of the season shows a 3 percent gain over 1995, which was a dismal year.

Two months ago, most retailers and analysts had predicted at least a 4 percent gain -- and were hoping for better.

But John Konarski, vice president of research at ICSC, called the gain "impressive," noting that there were five fewer shopping days this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When November and December are averaged together to account for the difference in the calendar, the gain could be 4 percent to 5 percent, he said.

Sales of jewelry led the way with a 14 percent increase. Sales of shoes came in second, with a 6 percent increase. On the other hand, electronics were down 1.5 percent.

Most major retailers will announce December sales Jan. 7.

Retailers were trying to boost sales yesterday in hopes of improving their year-end numbers.

At the White Marsh Mall, it was a day of returns, a day to buy that late gift and a day to buy next season's wrapping paper.

But, most of all, it was a day to take advantage of the sales.

"This is basically a shoppers' paradise of bargains," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report, a retail forecasting report.

Barnard predicted retailers would do a fraction more than 4 percent better than last year's poor showing.

"The holiday shopping season was not as good as many retailers expected. They have to unload it now," he said.

And so yesterday at some stores, the sales were deep and the business fairly brisk. Some stores were offering 50 percent to 70 percent off through the weekend, others only 20 percent, but it was difficult to find a store at White Marsh that was selling merchandise at pre-Christmas prices.

At the linen department in Macy's, the line snaked from the cash register around a sale rack and down an aisle.

Several shoppers said they had gone to Macy's to purchase a specific sale item and were leaving afterward.

A team for 15 years

But then there were the "professionals," such as Sandy Thompson and Susan Parker of Parkville.

"This is my second mall," said Thompson, carrying five bags filled with wrapping paper, candles and clothes.

For the past 15 years, the two women have gotten together to shop, take in a movie and have a meal the day after Christmas.

Thompson will continue shopping all week to take advantage of the sales, she said. "One year in one line at Hecht's I spent $700."

An American Express retail index found that 34 percent of consumers surveyed admitted to shopping for gifts immediately after the season is over.

Most of those surveyed -- 82 percent -- said they did so to take advantage of the sales, but others said they did so because they had forgotten to buy a present for someone, had been unable to find the right item before Christmas or weren't going to see someone until after the holiday.

Cashing in holiday gift certificates or cash from relatives was a popular activity at the mall, too. Rick Smith leaned against a railing on the upper level at White Marsh and watched the rest of his family hop from one store to the next.

"They wore out the Nintendo games and they said 'Let's go,' " Smith said.

Members of his family, including a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old, had gift certificates that were burning holes in their pockets, he said.

So where else would they go the day after Christmas but shopping?

While the season may not have been a blockbuster, some retailers did better than others. Those selling expensive merchandise, such as jewelry, were expected to be the big winners of the season, while consumer electronics retailers suffered.

"We had an excellent Christmas; we beat projections," said Jennifer Tuerke, assistant manager at Tuerkes, a luggage and leath- er-goods store in White Marsh. "We had the best Christmas in three to four years. People seemed happier to spend money this year. They weren't Scrooge-like."

Retailers appeared to have learned a lesson from the Christmas of 1995 when they were left with large inventories they had to get rid of at bargain prices. This year, the sales will not affect margins as much because retailers kept inventories leaner, Barnard said.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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