Thursday, December 26, 2002

Reuters -- No Christmas Miracle -- Doom, Gloom and No Sale on Main Street

Armed with gift certificates and unwanted presents on the day after Christmas, consumers hit shopping centers as early as 7 a.m. to pick up half-priced holiday decorations, winter coats and even cashmere sweaters.

But discount retailer Wal-Mart lowered its sales forecast for December, saying a last-minute surge in demand was too little and too late to make up for a slow start. The announcement sounded another grim note for a sector already braced for what is forecast to be the weakest sales season in more than 30 years.

A forecast on Tuesday from the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi and UBS Warburg estimated sales at U.S. chain stores would be up an anemic 1.5 percent in November and December, the smallest gain since the survey of weekly sales began in 1970.

New data released on Thursday showed this year's U.S. holiday sales dropped 11 percent from last year. Sales in the 26 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas totaled $113.1 billion, down from $127.3 billion last year, according to ShopperTrak RCT, which tracks retail sales.

Standing in the men's clothing department of Filene's in downtown Boston, John Forman weighed the purchase of a $75 cashmere sweater discounted from $150.

"I can't do it," Forman concluded with a sigh. "My last hurrah for shopping was for Christmas. I have to pay the man now."

Forman said he would not buy the sweater or anything else.

"I'm only returning some things and I'll gladly walk away with some cash," he said.

Those shoppers who do venture out can expect plenty of bargains. A monthly survey of retail executives released on Thursday by the National Retail Federation and Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi found widespread discounting.

"This suggests that retailers are beginning to use unplanned markdowns to attract last-minute shoppers, clear excess inventories and pad their holiday sales numbers," said Michael Niemira, senior retail analyst at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.

No one wants to be the first to admit how bad this season was - big profit declines expected when figures are released in January and February.

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