NEW YORK (CNNfn) - The results are in: Retail sales during the holiday season generally met expectations, but some merchants had a tough time attracting bargain-conscious buyers.
Aided by a bevy of after-Christmas sales, most retailers were able to post respectable figures, with discount merchants generally ringing up solid sales figures while department store results were mixed.
The nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) reported a healthy 7.2 percent jump in December comparable-store sales while number two Sears Roebuck (S) said sales rose 4.5 percent.
Kmart, (KM) though, reported December sales came in at the low end of expectations due to a slow start to the selling period. Same-store sales rose 2.9 percent.
Analysts said the strong U.S. economy led many retailer to have high hopes for the holiday season, but as the days to Christmas ticked down, those expectations were lowered.
"Mainstream mall apparel retailing had a tough time during the holiday season and will have hard time in 1998," NationsBanc Montgomery analyst Tom Tashjian said.
"The weekly pace of business was rather choppy during December, which made it difficult for retailers to assess underlying pace," he said.
Federated Department Stores, the parent company of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, reported same-store sales rose 1 percent. Fairing even worse, J.C. Penney's December sales dropped 2.3 percent, primarily because the department store chain refused to resort to deep discounting to attract crowds.
"They decided to take a less promotional posture this season," said Steven Kernkraut, analyst at Bear Stearns.
To be sure, Kernkraut was quick to point out that sales trends don't always dictate the bottom line. "It's not the end of the world. Certainly, you want to find the right balance," he said.
Meanwhile, both low- and high-end specialty retailers were able to attract their targeted audience.
Clothing chain, Gap, reported same-store sales in December rose 10 percent as did children's apparel company Gymboree. Party City, a party supplies chain, reported a 19-percent jump, while upscale jeweler Tiffany reported a 15 percent gain.
"The secret to survive is you have to have a clear identity and clear brand." Kernkraut said.
Still, retailers that have faced problems throughout the year were not sheltered by the holiday selling period. (170K WAV) (170K AIFF)
Woolworth, which is in the midst of a major restructuring involving store closures and layoffs, reported a 5.3 percent drop. Ann Taylor, which has introduced a new, simpler line to revive sales, reported a 10.1 percent decline.
-- by staff writer Robert Liu