Retailers on knife's edge

The final days before Christmas are crucial, and shoppers gave it their best shot. But the push may not have been enough to prop up spending for the season.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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A record number of people put off holiday shopping until the bitter end this year.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- A late surge by shoppers may not have been enough to save the Christmas shopping season.

The economic stakes are high: November and December can account for as much as 50 percent of sales and profits at many chains.

In the final days before Christmas, malls stayed open around the clock and stores tempted customers with huge discounts. And it appears that many of the record 35 million Americans who postponed gift-buying came out for a last-minute push.

A survey released Monday by ShopperTrak said that weekend sales jumped 18.7 percent over a year ago, with sales on Saturday - usually the busiest shopping day of the year - climbing 7.6 percent.

But the eleventh-hour shopping spree may not have been enough to make up for a weak month.

Data released Tuesday by MasterCard SpendingPulse showed that sales for the season - excluding gas and auto sales - increased only 2.4 percent over last year, the Associated Press reported. Such growth would be below what many experts projected.

There were other indications that the sharp decline in home values and other problems in the economy had taken a toll on consumers' willingness to open their wallets wide.

Early Monday, some industry analysts expressed concern over the pace of sales. "The weekend seems like it was disappointing," said Stevan Buxbaum, retailing expert and executive vice president of consulting firm Buxbaum Group.

Buxbaum, citing anecdotal information based on his surveys of malls in Minneapolis over Saturday and Sunday, said stores looked busy "but not like the final weekend frenzy you'd expect."

"In Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothes were perfectly stacked when the store should've looked like a war zone," Buxbaum said. Bad weather in the mid-west probably also kept people at home, he said.

Britt Beemer, chief executive of America's Research Group, also thought sales were weak based on interviews of 800 consumers on Dec. 22 and Dec. 23.

"Although over half of Americans shopped this weekend, only seven in ten (71 percent) are completely done with their Christmas shopping," Beemer said in a report. "We normally expect 85 percent of shoppers out on the last weekend before Christmas saying that they have finished shopping."

Beemer's survey also asked about the most commonly visited retailers. More than 90 percent of respondents said they had shopped at Costco (COST, Fortune 500), J.C Penney (JCP, Fortune 500), Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble (BKS, Fortune 500).

Consumers said Sears and Sam's Club did a "good job" meeting their expectations while Macy's, Circuit City, Borders and Dillard did not do an adequate job.

Buxbaum said the last week before Christmas now accounts for 10 percent or more of the entire season's sales. And given his observations, Buxbaum said he'd be surprised if retailers are able to meet industry projections. The National Retail Federation (NRF) had forecast holiday sales in the November-December period to grow 4 percent to $474.5 billion, the slowest pace of growth since 2002.

The NRF blamed the softness on the housing downturn, record high gas prices and tighter credit conditions.

ShopperTrak had forecast 3.6 percent growth and based on its weekend survey thought that mark could be reached.

After sales got off to a strong start on Black Friday, various sales tracking firms indicated that the buying momentum had slackened in early December before picking up speed again mid-month. The Saturday before Christmas is usually the biggest shopping day of the year, but for the second year in a row Black Friday sales were higher.

Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst with NPD Group said the NRF's holiday sales estimates "was never in good standing in the first place."

He attributes this not to NRF being over-optimistic with its forecast but for "ignoring" the way gift cards have changed the rules of holiday shopping.

Cohen estimates that 61 percent of shoppers will give gift cards as presents this year. Retailers account for gift cards sales when the cards are actually redeemed for merchandise and not when they are bought.

"The reason why store traffic is down is because so many people are buying gift cards. They just run in and out of the store. Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) even has an express checkout just for gift cards," Cohen said.

Most gift cards are redeemed in January. Therefore, Cohen includes sales in November, December and the first two weeks of January in his holiday forecast.

He expects holiday sales by that measure to grow about 2.8 percent. "This will still be an OK season after the dust settles," he said. To top of page

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