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No big game for bargain hunters
In last lap before Christmas, strong traffic kept retailers from panicking; online sales sizzle.
December 19, 2005: 11:50 AM EST
By Parija Bhatnagar, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - Bad news for holiday bargain hunters: Since so many of you were out there shopping the last full weekend before Christmas, retailers weren't offering deep-discount "panic sales."

Retail industry watchers say that about 58 percent of consumers probably have finished holiday shopping now, with less than a week until the holiday.

Every year at this time consumers and retailers engage in a game of "lets see who blinks first." Many bargain-hungry consumers wait until this week to do their shopping in the hope that merchants will slash prices as Christmas gets closer.

But if retailers are feeling confident about their inventory, as they apparently are now, they're inclined to limit discounts in a bid to preserve profits.

"This was a weekend to make money," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with market research firm NPD Group. "Retailers wanted to go with full-priced merchandise as close to Christmas as they could."

Cohen said his own observations this past Saturday and Sunday revealed discounts at most stores ranged between 25 to 40 percent off.

"Retailers certainly aren't panicking," said Cohen. "Their inventory is in good shape. Sales are looking OK. Companies aren't looking for double-digit sales increases for the season.

"Any senior retail executive that I talk to is holding that line," Cohen added. "They say that a three to four to five percent comparable sales gain is respectable. They want to maintain their profit margins."

For its part, the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart (Research), on Saturday reiterated its December forecast for sales at its stores open at least a year -- a key retail measure known as same-store sales -- to be up two to four percent.

Wal-Mart executives told earlier this month that they expected to see another "huge" sales rush in the final days of the season.

Wal-Mart's been eager to correct its big blunder last year during the holidays when it skimped on heavy discount in favor of preserving profits. This year the retailer launched an aggressive holiday marketing and promotions campaign for 2005. The result: November sales rose 4.3 percent versus an anemic 0.7 percent gain for the same period last year.

So who's feeling the jitters?

Cohen thinks the biggest price-cutting will begin this week and continue after Christmas. "It doesn't really matter to retailers when they slash prices because all these days still fall within the same fiscal quarter," Cohen said.

"Even then, only selective stores will get more aggressive, not all of them," he added. On Monday, Gap and Banana Republic, divisions of Gap Inc., announced 50 percent storewide sales on seasonal merchandise.

And department store chain Sears (Research) set deeper sales this week in select categories such as tools, fine jewelry and outwear.

"Thanks to reports in the media, consumers know that inventories are a little tighter this year and that's prompting them to buy earlier and even at closer to full price," said John Ford, Sears' district manager for the northern region. He said traffic levels this past weekend were "good" as Sears customers shopped primarily for consumer electronics, home appliances and winter clothing.

Karen MacDonald, spokeswoman for mall operator Taubman Centers (Research) said the company's own survey showed sales levels this past weekend were pretty much at the same level they had been for much of last week.

According to an e-mail sent to, MacDonald said most stores at The Mall at Wellington Green in Wellington, Fl. offered "the same sales that they have been offering all week." But she noted that gift card sales were up mid-single to double digits on Saturday.

Both regular price and discounted merchandise were selling well, she said. Additionally, MacDonald said luxury stores did very little discounting.

At the Cherry Creek mall in Denver, the strongest selling categories were luxury, apparel, jewelry and electronics. "Stores surveyed are offering typical promotions, nothing out of the ordinary today," MacDonald said.

Holiday online sales are still sizzling hot, meanwhile. According to the latest tally by market research firm ComScore Networks, consumers have spent a total of $15.9 billion from Nov. 1 through Dec. 16 on cyber shopping, up 23 percent over the same period last year.

The firm estimates total online sales for the season, excluding travel, will grow 24 percent over last year to about $19 billion.

Click here for a rundown of the Holiday winners & losers.

Click here for's Holiday Money special report.  Top of page

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