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They Shopped -- Then They Dropped?

Times Staff Writer

After bolting from the starting gates Friday, shoppers in the U.S. may have tripped over the weekend.

Sales on the day after Thanksgiving were 11% higher than in 2003, but Saturday showed a 6.5% drop, according to a firm that keeps tabs on consumers. The result was a “rather erratic start” to the holiday shopping season, ShopperTrak RCT Corp. said Monday.

The ShopperTrak analysis and other reports helped send the Morgan Stanley retail index of 38 leading retailers down $1.96 to $141.95. The biggest losers were Neiman Marcus Group Inc., May Department Stores Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. didn’t fare well either. The discounter said Sunday that Friday’s sales had failed to meet expectations -- and on Monday its stock dropped $2.17 to $53.15 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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Possibly contradicting the negative reports, Visa USA Inc. said Monday that total sales completed with its credit cards Friday through Sunday exceeded $10 billion, a 13.9% increase over the same period last year. It was unknown, however, how much of that increase was attributable simply to more use of Visa cards.

ShopperTrak didn’t release numbers for Sunday, but Michael Niemira, an advisor to the firm, said that day’s sales had improved slightly compared with those of the same Sunday last year.

“If you add in Sunday to the three days, it’s still a pretty modest gain,” Niemira said. “Is the weakness we’re seeing an omen for the season? My answer is probably not. But we need to see more.”

According to ShopperTrak, sales in the two days after Thanksgiving rose 3.5% -- less than half the 7.7% jump recorded in the same period last year. A spokesman, Aaron Martin, partly blamed rough weather in some areas of the country and tough comparisons with 2003, when sales on the Saturday after Thanksgiving rose a strong 8.8%.

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The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade group, shrugged off ShopperTrak’s findings, suggesting that retailers had done such a good job getting people into stores Friday that consumers had simply decided to take a breather over the weekend.

“It makes sense,” NRF spokeswoman Ellen Tolley said. “After getting up bright and early Friday morning, many consumers chose not to shop on Saturday.”

The federation expects a 4.5% increase in sales this year.

But America’s Research Group said 31% of the people it interviewed earlier in the month who had said they would go shopping over the long weekend ended up changing their minds.

Many would-be consumers said “there was nothing out there to make us want to shop,” said Britt Beemer, chief executive of the Charleston, S.C., consumer research firm.

More than 45% of those who did shop said there weren’t enough tempting discounts to prompt them to spend more than planned, the survey found.

“I think they just didn’t see the deals,” Beemer said.

“There’s no hot apparel item, no hot electronics item and no hot toy. I think those three things place a huge pall over the entire Christmas shopping season.”

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Still, he expects sales to rise 3.2% over last year’s.

Another retailer that saw its stock lose ground Monday was City of Industry-based Hot Topic Inc.

The teen apparel and accessories chain said that November sales were punier than expected and that sales at stores open at least a year, a key industry indicator, fell 8%. As a result, the parent of 668 Hot Topic and Torrid stores said after the market closed that it expected per-share profit of 37 cents to 43 cents in the fourth quarter rather than the 49 cents to 52 cents projected earlier.

Hot Topic shares fell 5% to $18.84, down $1.07, on Nasdaq.

“We are clearly disappointed by our November results and their implications for the remainder of the quarter,” Chief Executive Betsy McLaughlin said in a statement.

Many investors and industry insiders watch consumers closely the day after Thanksgiving for clues about how enthusiastic -- or subdued -- shoppers are feeling as Christmas approaches. The day is known as Black Friday in the industry because it was once considered the time that retailers began reaping profits after being in “the red” most of the year.

But it isn’t necessarily an indicator of how the holiday shopping season will unfold, Niemira said.

“Too many times we’ve seen the focus on Black Friday, or the weekend after, and it’s not been a bellwether of the season as a whole,” he said.

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For example, on the three days after Thanksgiving in 2002, year-over-year sales rose a solid 5.4%, but overall retail sales increased a mere 1.1% for the season.

The best barometer to come will be available Thursday when chain stores nationwide report November same-store sales.

“It’s important to remember,” the retail federation’s Tolley said, “this is just the beginning of a very long race.”


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