Last-Minute Shopping Boosted Holiday Sales

It's official. When it comes to holiday shopping, we're a nation of procrastinators. Tallies of holiday sales show the week of Christmas -- the seven-day period ending Dec. 26 -- was golden for retailers, with sales up 2.3% over last year's numbers, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% The last-minute spending blitz also resulted from the fact that shoppers were finally able to hit the stores hard after being kept away by major snowstorms earlier in the month. The final push was being credited for helping drive sales for the overall holiday season 3.6% higher than in 2008, as reported by DailyFinance earlier this week.

More important, perhaps, Christmas-week activity represented the third consecutive week of rising sales, a momentum retailers were no doubt very glad to see. The week itself was likely boosted by the day after Christmas, a big day for returns and gift card redemptions. Consumers had picked up the pace in the days leading into Christmas, which made up for a dip caused by the "Super Saturday" snowstorms in the Northeast and South.

Out in Force at the Finish

Every week during this holiday season, the survey found shoppers had completed a smaller share of their gift shopping than the same time a year ago -- a trend that's been growing every year. If the weekly growth had not materialized, totals for the season could have fallen short of even the conservative forecasts of flat to 2% year-over-year growth that most observers had expected.

"Consumers were out in force to finish shopping and the preliminary indications appear that sales are on track (with one more week of sales in the fiscal month) to finish up about two percent for the month of December," said Michael Niemira, the ICSC's chief economist in his report. He also affirmed his earlier forecast of a 1% gain in sales for the full holiday season.

The Christian Science Monitoradvanced the theory that snowbound consumers turned to the Internet and online sales spiked. The Monitor dug into Monday's MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse data -- which showed online retailers' sales rose 15% -- to argue this means retailers can't treat web sales as an add-on anymore.

Typical Behavior

As many analysts have pointed out, the slight increases in sales this year over the big drops last year mean things are just getting less bad, not necessarily good. Unemployment remains a wild card on all consumer spending, especially discretionary shopping like apparel and electronics, where price deflation has helped spur sales this year, if not stores' sales. Retailers' profits have come mainly from cost-cutting and controlling markdowns by holding down inventory.

Holiday shoppers behaved as expected by procrastinating and bargain-hunting, but shopping nonetheless. And retailers did as they said they would, too, maintaining tight inventories and targeted discounting. Both those factors are a good sign for a return to some sort of stability in the retail area.

Along with news of an increase in the Consumer Confidence Index in December, retailers and investors in retail stocks have some reason to feel encouraged about 2010.
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