NEW YORK -- With a weak back-to-school season behind them, the nation's retailers are focused on the holidays and what steps they need to take to get consumers excited about shopping again. That could mean some quick merchandise changes and more aggressive discounting than they originally planned.
''The back-to-school period is not a bellwether for the holiday season, but there are a lot of lessons that you can take out of that period," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. ''That is what retailers need to focus on."
It's too late for merchants to make any dramatic changes in their holiday merchandise, but they can still tweak collections and marketing plans. Struggling Sears, Roebuck and Co. decided last month to change its holiday decor, with oversize photographs of gifts that Sears will begin placing in stores in mid-November.
September's sluggish sales figures, released to the public on Thursday, offered retailers some ideas about what might click with shoppers and what probably wouldn't during the holidays.
Among the hot sellers for the early fall season were accessories including silk wraps, ponchos, and brooches and other jewelry. But muted colors fared poorly, said Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y.
Clearly, retailers are in a different position from a year ago, when they had just come off a strong back-to-school season, boosted in part by tax rebates that served as incentives for consumers to spend freely. But stores struggled in October, November, and the early part of December, only to be saved by a shopping spree before and after Christmas.
This year, after enjoying robust sales from January through May, stores suffered four consecutive months of sluggish sales as the economy lost momentum.
The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 71 retailers reported Thursday a modest 2.4 percent sales gain in September. The results were higher than August's 1.3 percent gain, but well off the average 6 percent increase of January through May. The tally is based on what the industry calls same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, considered the best indicator of a retailer's performance.