Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Weekend Surge May Not Rescue U.S. Retailers From Holiday Slump

By Joseph Galante

Dec. 25 (Bloomberg) -- A surge in spending during the weekend before Christmas may not have been enough to rescue Target Corp., Sears Holdings Corp. and Macy's Inc. from the slowest holiday spending season in five years.

Sales rose 19 percent from Dec. 21 to Dec. 23 as U.S. shoppers took advantage of half-off sales and extended hours, Chicago-based ShopperTrak RCT Corp. said yesterday. Even with the late increase, spending during the week through Dec. 22 fell 2.2 percent, the fourth straight week of declines.

``It's not going to overcome the negative forecasts,'' Frederick Crawford, managing director at Southfield, Michigan- based AlixPartners LLP, said of the weekend in a Bloomberg Television interview. ``It's going to be a good start, a very weak midsection, and a strong finish. But those two barbells at the end are not going to be able to overcome these last three weeks, which have been very weak.''

Gasoline at $3 a gallon and rising food prices have discouraged shoppers from spending during November and December, which account for 20 percent of retailers' annual revenue, according to the NRF. Target, the second-biggest U.S. discounter, said yesterday that sales at stores open more than a year may decline in December after customer visits slowed in the weeks after Thanksgiving.

Sales in November and December this year may rise 4 percent, the slowest growth since 2002, according to the National Retail Federation. ShopperTrak has predicted a 3.6 percent increase.

Late Shoppers

Less than one-fifth of consumers had finished their holiday shopping as of Dec. 16, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York. J.C. Penney Co., Sears and Toys ``R'' Us Inc. tried to lure late buyers with discounts over the weekend, helping boost U.S. retailers' sales by 7.6 percent on Dec. 22, the Saturday before Christmas.

Chris Lewis, a cleaning-franchise owner, began shopping for his two children on Dec. 21, and may buy more items after Christmas.

``I try to stay kind of frugal,'' the 35-year-old resident of Silver Spring, Maryland, said. ``I'm not going to give everything I have in one day.''

While U.S. Internet sales are rising at a faster pace than store purchases, they may increase at the slowest pace on record this year.

Online spending from Nov. 1 through Dec. 21 increased 19 percent from the same period a year earlier to $26.3 billion, Reston, Virginia-based ComScore Inc. said Dec. 23. Sales trailed last year's 26 percent growth and the research firm's forecast for a 20 percent gain during this year's holidays.

Although customer visits increased for the week ended Dec. 22, ``this increase was not sufficient to compensate for the unfavorable traffic trends that carried over into December from the week following Thanksgiving,'' Target said on a recorded call.

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