NATION Stores pin hopes on late shoppers



Retailers are still facing what could be the slowest holiday season in 12 years.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Despite jammed stores and malls during the last weekend before Christmas, retailers remain anxious and uncertain after a desired sales bonanza failed to materialize.
Many storeowners disappointed by consumers' cautious buying are looking with some desperation to last-minute shoppers and post-Christmas bargain hunters for some relief in what has been a difficult holiday season.
At K-B Toys Inc., "we are happy that we are holding ground, but we were really hoping for a higher increase" during the weekend, spokesman John Reilly said Sunday.
Analysts said other merchants had a similar experience.
"It was a solid weekend, but retailers needed a spectacular weekend," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group. "It was what I expected, but not what I hoped."
Same-store sales
Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, believes that sales at stores opened at least a year, known as same-store sales, could fall below his already-reduced 2-percent forecast. Same-store sales are considered the best indicator of a retailer's health.
"The season is reflecting great spending caution and could be the weakest in a dozen years," Barnard said.
Retailers had a good start to the season with better-than-expected sales during Thanksgiving weekend, but sales subsequently were surprisingly weak. Analysts say consumers have cut back on their spending because of worries about job security and the economy's uncertain recovery.
Merchants, facing a season with six fewer days than last year and disappointing sales, were counting even more on this past weekend. Saturday, reflecting a long-standing tradition, was expected to be the busiest shopping day of the year.
At the malls and on Main Street, shoppers were searching for the best price, and retailers were accommodating them with two-for-one specials and other deep discounts.
Offering discounts
At Sears, Roebuck and Co., the company offered a 10-percent discount on nearly everything in the store from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m on Saturday. Gloves and other cold-weather merchandise, as well as digital cameras and jewelry did well, according to Ted McDougal, a company spokesman.
Still, business over the weekend was in line with the company's modest expectations, though McDougal declined to be more specific. Overall, Sears expects a single-digit decline in holiday sales from a year ago, he said.
K-B Toys, which offered discounts anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent, reported that while customer traffic was strong, sales only showed a slight gain from a year ago.
The retailer is focusing on the final days of the month to recoup business.
Last week, a number of stores, including Electronics Boutique, Best Buy Co. Inc., and Barnes & amp; Noble Inc. reduced their fourth-quarter earnings.
Even Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, is seeing sales at the low end of its projections for a 3 percent to 5 percent gain in December.
The National Retail Federation, an industry group, was holding on to its optimism, and to hopes that procrastinators will give stores a boost. The NRF estimated that 35 percent of consumers hadn't completed their shopping as of last Monday.

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