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Bargain-hungry shoppers in driving seat

23 December 2013, 10:48 Reuters

New York - US consumers shopped less on the final weekend before Christmas despite deeper discounts, the latest sign of how difficult a season this is turning out to be for retailers.

Shoppers also showed signs they will do more of their spending after December 25 than they did in the same period last year in the hopes of snagging even more deals.

RetailNext estimated on Sunday that US retail sales fell by a mid-single-digit percentage at brick-and-mortar stores on Friday and Saturday, two of the four most important shopping days of the season, compared with the same days last year. That does not include online sales, which have been strong.

RetailNext, an analytics firm, said the number of visits to stores fell 7% on Friday and Saturday.

Analysts have said this is turning out to be the most competitive holiday season since the recession, forcing retailers to ramp up the promotions. The season generates 30% of sales and 40% of profits for many stores.

"I'm doing my shopping on a budget, which is why I'm digging through the clearance bin," said Katrina Attis, 25, as she shopped on Sunday at a JC Penney in a mall in Elmhurst, New York.

Before Christmas, Attis will focus on her immediate family. For herself and other members of her family, she will shop next week when she expects bigger bargains.

"Retailers recognise that consumers will wait as long as they need to," said Charles O'Shea, senior analyst at Moody's Investors Service, who noted bigger discounts this weekend than in the corresponding weekend in 2012 as he did store checks in various cities.

The problem is particularly acute for specialty apparel retailers, O'Shea added, pointing to teen apparel chain Abercrombie & Fitch as one of the stores with the most noticeable increases in price cuts.

While electronics chains have benefited from best-selling items like Microsoft's Xbox One video-game console and Sony's rival product PlayStation 4, clothing has been a harder sell, he said.

Teen apparel retailer Aeropostale, which is trying to stanch deep sales declines, was touting up to 70% off everything in its stores on Sunday.

Still, some retailers seem to be faring well. Chad Hastings, the general manager of Town East Mall in Mesquite, Texas, said the department stores in his mall told him sales this weekend were better than expected. The mall is anchored by Penney, Macy's, Dillard's and Sears.

Retailers caught a break from Mother Nature. Despite a winter storm that hit major Midwestern markets such as Chicago and Detroit, no event was severe enough to disrupt holiday shopping in any part of the country, said Evan Gold, a senior vice president at Planalytics, a weather consulting firm in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. Gold predicted no disruptions in the last two days before Christmas.

Experts expect the promotions to continue until the very end of the season in January.

"Without question, the shopper is in the driver's seat," said John Yozzo, a managing director at FTI Consulting, in New York.


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