December Sales Stronger Than Expected

holiday shopping

Retailers are basking in a little belated holiday cheer, with many turning in numbers that are somewhat stronger than expected.

Retail Forward's index, which looks at 32 leading chains, jumped 3% -- up from 0.9% last month, and way better than the 4.1% decline stores endured back in December 2008. But Frank Badillo, senior economist at Retail Forward, a Kantar Retail Co., tells Marketing Daily it's not time to break out the recovery noisemakers just yet.

"We expected December would be stronger, and these gains -- mostly in apparel companies -- show discretionary spending on small-ticket items is even higher than we thought it would be," he says. "But this doesn't include results from Wal-Mart Stores or home-good stores. Consumers are still being cautious, and spending will continue to be uneven across categories."



While sales at department stores lagged on the whole -- they fell 7% at Dillard's, 4.3% at Sears, and 3.8% at JCPenney -- some did well, especially at the higher end. Saks says its same-store sales gained 9.9% for the month, Nordstrom 7.4%, and Neiman Marcus 4.5%. Macy's sales edged up 1% and Kohl's, with its highly promotional holiday marketing campaign, gained 4.7%.

Some specialty apparel stores also did quite well, especially those that emphasized value. TJX Cos., owner of both T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, says its sales shot up 14%, while comparable-store results at Ross Stores posted a 12% increase. Gap Inc. stores gained 2%.

Some teen retailers continued to suffer, with Abercrombie & Fitch sinking 19%, Hot Topic declining 10.9% and Wet Seal falling 4.6%. But others fared better: Aeropostale rose 10%, American Eagle Outfitters, 7%, and The Buckle, 6%.

Target's sales increased 1.8%, and warehouse clubs showed big gains, with BJ's Wholesale Club up 4.8% and Costco up 9%.

And while experts had expected online sales to be a bright spot, Badillo says it outshone expectations. "More than half of all households shopped for holiday gifts at," he says, an eight percentage-point gain compared with 2008. "That's quite significant, and illustrates why Wal-Mart is going head to head with Amazon."

Retail Forward reports that while registered a slight increase in online shoppers, it also saw its conversion rate fall eight percentage points. (Earlier this week, comScore, which measures digital spending, reported that for the full holiday online shopping season, consumers spent $29.1 billion, up 4% from last year.)

Despite the measured optimism, the near-term outlook is still somewhat downbeat. The International Council of Shopping Centers, for example -- which says its index of stores gained 2.8% in December, compared to a year ago -- expects January sales to come in flat to up 1%. But for the full year, it forecasts an annual increase of 3 to 3.5%, the strongest since 2006.

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