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A decent-to-jolly Christmas. Retailers say late sales spurt shows shoppers still spending

``The sales just started taking off at the last minute, especially for the special holiday books,'' says Sheryl Stebbins, director of merchandise buying at Waldenbooks, the largest book chain in the United States. ``Customers are very selective this year. But a lot of books are being sold, and well above our expectations.'' Upbeat sales at Waldenbooks are also good for the book chain's parent company, the Kmart Corporation, which, along with such major national corporations as Sears, Roebuck & Co., J.C. Penney, and Woolworth, dominate the retail trade. In fact, federal statistics released Tuesday show that retail sales were up 1.1 percent in November. October sales, meantime, were revised to show a 1.6 percent rise.

Such statistics are somewhat suspect to retail analysts, since they include car sales, which tend to ``alter the actual meaning of the retail sales figures,'' says Daniel D. Barry, a retail analyst with Kidder, Peabody & Co. As the government noted in Tuesday's report, car sales surged in both October and November.

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Still, the retail numbers do suggest decent-to-jolly year-end sales for the major retailers. That is seen as important, given the duration of the economic expansion that's been under way since the mid-1980s. Consumers still appear willing to plunk down their dollars.

``So far everything is in line with what the retailers were anticipating for late 1988,'' Mr. Barry says. ``They're having good sales, and, for many of the major companies, good profits.''

``Everything is coming along just as we expected it,'' says Roy Garofalo, vice-president for investor relations at Woolworth, which has some 5,000 retail outlets in the US under various store names. For the year to date, Mr. Garofalo says, Woolworth is posting a gain of about 12 percent. Yet last year, he says, Woolworth posted its best sales results at the end of the year, during the Christmas shopping period. Woolworth is obviously hoping for a repeat of that pattern, he says.

One factor in its favor: the ``stretched-out length'' of this year's holiday shopping season. Last year, Garofalo notes, Christmas fell on a Friday, which meant two fewer shopping days in the final week. In addition, many stores closed somewhat early on the previous Thursday, Christmas Eve. But this year Christmas falls on a Sunday, which means sales right through the week. Just those two extra days of holiday shopping hours ``could produce as much as 20 percent to 30 percent additional sales,'' Garofalo says.

According to store officials, this year's shopping patterns can be summed up in three words:

Selectivity. ``Customers are looking for that `special' item,'' one retailer says. ``They seem to know just what they want to buy this year.''

Quality. Price, in other words, is not necessarily a limiting factor. Customers are willing to pay a fair price for the product of their choice.

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Patience. Given the longer shopping period, customers are willing to wait for the product they want. But retailers say that, in turn, this has given them additional time to stock shelves and replenish depleted shelves during the shopping period.

``Retail sales, excluding car sales, were up 0.09 percent in November, following a rise of 0.08 percent in October,'' says Sara Johnson, an economist with Data Resources Inc., a consulting firm in Lexington, Mass. ``That means that sales are rising well ahead of the inflation rate. These numbers prove that the economy is growing at an unsustainable pace. Either inflation will continue to build up, or the Federal Reserve Board will be forced to take action, which means that interest rates will rise.''

So while the go-go numbers for retailers, particularly department stores, may be ``good news'' for the corporate front office, the upshot may not be so desirable for the economy as a whole, Ms. Johnson suggests.

The numbers also clearly indicate that some early press reports showing a slow or lackluster sales period were wrong, or at least premature, Johnson says.

According to Barry at Kidder, Peabody, a number of national retailers have been posting healthy to strong sales gains, including Kmart, The Limited, May Department Stores, Wal-Mart, and Woolworth. Early sales for Sears, the nation's largest retailer, were ``disappointing,'' but are expected to be in line with company expectations as the year winds down.

Ironically, many brokers are already discounting the expected upbeat sales. Kidder, Peabody, for example, believes retailers will face slower sales, higher costs, and a ``more competitive environment'' in 1989.

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