The final numbers haven't officially been tallied, but the bottom line for the Christmas shopping season doesn't look very merry.
Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest retailer, has lowered its holiday sales outlook. Target's national holiday sales are coming in "well under plan." Sears reported strong sales the day after Thanksgiving but then hit a two-week lull.
Other stores are reporting moderate gains at best. There were some exceptions at area stores, which said they had decent years despite the national slump.
But stores still are holding out hope, slashing prices for post-Christmas sales that retailers say will offset what some are calling the worst holiday shopping season in more than 30 years.
"It's certainly been disappointing," said Scott Klugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation in Washington. "We originally forecast a 4 percent increase, and we think we'll see a 3.5 percent increase, which would be the lowest in years. We don't think it's the worst in 30 years, but it's been challenging."
Others are less optimistic, and one national survey predicts holiday sales to rise only by 1.5 percent, which would be the smallest increase since the early 1970s.
Regardless, it certainly has been a season of adversity for retailers. There was no gotta-have-it toy, like the Tickle-Me-Elmo and Cabbage Patch dolls of years past. A late Thanksgiving shortened the shopping season by six days. And while most chains offered discounts, many consumers were leery about spending freely in these tough economic times.
Klugman blamed the lethargic economy and fewer shopping days for the retail slump. He said consumers' worry over the possibility of a war with Iraq also may have caused them to spend less.
"All of those things may have been too much to overcome," he said.
But he said there is still hope and that the last week of the year accounts for 11 percent of total holiday sales, or, as he put it, "just enough to turn a bad holiday season into a respectable holiday season."
Sale signs abound
At J.C. Penney in Cape Girardeau, there were red 50-percent-off signs scattered throughout the store on clothing and jewelry. At Famous Barr, gold earrings and other pieces of jewelry were on sale for 50 percent off. Other stores offered as much off as 75 percent for certain items.
Shoppers were out late last week to gobble up sale items and exchange gifts. Mary Swinger of Dexter, Mo., was at J.C. Penney to exchange a few gifts and look for bargains.
"I do this every year," she said, holding a bag full of items. "It's a good way to get a head start on next year. But it does seem like there are more sales this year than I can remember."
Joyce Fisher of Grand Tower, Ill., drove 35 miles to shop at Westfield Shoppingtown West Park and to exchange clothes that were too big for her. She said she spent about the same amount as last year but noted she was cost-conscious.
"I was very aware of what things cost, and I watched for sales," she said. "I don't think I paid full price for anything. I'm a single parent, so I keep my eye out for sales."
If the national retailers were talking about gloomy bottom lines, local managers were remaining optimistic.
"Worst in 30 years, I don't know about that," said Greg Gallaher, Target's assistant manager. "I know that people were more choosey about what they bought because of the economy. But we think this last week's going to help out. We call it the fifth quarter. We gear it to bargain hunters, and it's usually a good draw."
In addition to 50-percent-off items, customers are looking for storage bins to put away Christmas decorations, he said.
"That's the big push for the last week of the year," he said.
Phyllis White, J.C. Penney's assistant manager at the Cape Girardeau store, said the situation nationally is probably bleak. "But here, we've had a sales gain in our store," she said. "I've been with the company for 23 years, and this has been one of our better years. This has not been our worst year."
She said that's because Penney's has a new CEO who has implemented new procedures and centralized buying for the district. There also has been more and better advertising, and Penney's has added some new merchandise, she said.
"We're not running double-digit gains, but we are having gains," she said. "We're up 3 percent over last year, and up is up. Overall, I feel like we've had a very good year."
Chuck McGinty is the president of Cape Girardeau's Downtown Merchant's Association as well as owner of C.P. McGinty Jewelers. He said he had an outstanding year.
"Ours was one of the best ever," he said. "The Monday before Christmas is the single best day of business we've had in 20-something years. We were wall-to-wall, and these are not small-ticket items."
McGinty said he couldn't explain how some stores can be going against the grain.
"As a rule, whatever is happening nationally is just the opposite at my store," he said. "If the chains are showing giant increases, I'm losing money. If they're crying the blues, I'm making money. I can't explain it. I think a lot of it is luck. This year you're lucky. Maybe next year you're not."
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