NEW YORK - Retailers who suffered through a miserable November - despite a surge in sales the day after Thanksgiving - are worried that the usual lull between the holiday weekend and the final days before Christmas could be dangerously quiet this year.
With financially squeezed consumers either holding out for even better deals or already done with their shopping, retailers who are offering deep discounts will likely be forced to be even more aggressive as they lurch through a season looking to be the weakest in at least 30 years.
Worries about the holiday season increased yesterday after many retailers - with Walmart the notable exception - reported November sales so dismal that it was the industry's worst month since at least 1969. The malaise cut across all sectors as shoppers worried about layoffs and shrinking retirement funds and focused on necessities.
Based on conversations with stores, this week's sales have been slower than expected, said Janet Hoffman, managing partner of the North American retail practice of Accenture. And with five fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, retailers are under more pressure to make every day count.
Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at mall operator Taubman Centers Inc., said that stores are being more aggressive with discounting for this weekend compared with a year ago.
In recent years, shoppers have been increasingly delaying their holiday shopping to the final days before Christmas for better bargains, but analysts say that they believe that this year people just can't afford to spend more. C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, notes that a higher percentage of shoppers that he has surveyed had completed their holiday buying last Friday compared with a year ago.
"If retailers are not super aggressive with discounts, stores will be retail museums," said Beemer, who expects that the lull will be more pronounced this year.
Worries about the economy have helped Walmart, which reported a 3.4 percent gain in same-store sales, surpassing the 2.1 percent increase that analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected. The results excluded sales from fuel.
Walmart added that business is starting to benefit from falling gas prices, noting that shopping trips increased and "customers had more discretionary income to spend." It expects same-store sales growth for December to be at the high end of its range of 1 to 3 percent.
However, Costco Wholesale Corp., usually a strong performer, reported a bigger-than expected 5 percent drop in same-store sales. Target Corp., which has been stumbling as its merchandise focuses more on nonessentials like trendy clothes, reported a 10.4 percent drop. And most mall-based chains and department stores fared even worse, with Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Nordstrom Inc. and Kohl's Corp. reporting percentage declines exceeding 15 percent.
Sales data from Thanksgiving weekend showed a buying binge on Friday, but shoppers retreated the rest of the weekend. And even at stores on Friday, people focused on bargains and on small-ticket purchases as they slash their holiday budgets. *