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Unhappy December for retailers

Slow sales spur concerns for '07

Jewelery chain Zales Corp. was one of several national retailers that cut profit outlooks because they were forced to slash prices to lure shoppers. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

NEW YORK -- December's lackluster retail sales left the nation's merchants wondering yesterday about their chances for a turnaround in 2007 -- even as several big merchants were scaling back their fourth-quarter earnings expectations.

As retailers reported their sales for the month and the entire holiday season, many blamed their disappointing showings on mild weather that depressed sales of winter clothing , and on consumers who waited until just before Christmas to do their shopping. But it was clear that shoppers, worried about the housing market and energy prices, were waiting to get the lowest possible prices -- a cautious stance that's expected to continue this year.

December's disappointments crossed all retail categories, from Limited Brands Inc. to jewelry chain Zales Corp. and could be a harbinger to weak profit reports when retailers release fourth-quarter results next month; retailers' fiscal years generally end in late January. A number of retailers including Zales, BJ's Wholesale Club Inc., Gap Inc., and AnnTaylor Stores Corp. cut their profit outlooks yesterday because they were forced to slash prices to lure shoppers.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. posted better-than-expected results for December following a dismal November, but the discounter's overall holiday season was still its worst ever, analysts said.

"The season depended not on what the current economic conditions were but what consumers perceived," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers. He noted that while gas prices declined and the housing market's slump appeared to be leveling off, "these concerns were pretty much ingrained in the consumers."

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally posted a 3.1 percent gain in December, in line with original expectations. That means for the November-December period, same-store sales averaged a 2.8 percent gain, slightly below the original forecast of 3 percent. The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year; these sales are the industry's standard for measuring retailers' health.

Although retailers had a good start during the Thanksgiving weekend, many stores struggled in December and a shopping surge just before and after Christmas wasn't enough to make up for lost sales. Merchants tried to stick to their previously planned discounts, but at the season's end they resorted to bigger-than-anticipated cuts to pull shoppers in.

Declining gasoline prices and a steady job market should have helped merchants, but Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a research company in Swampscott, Mass., believes the recent drop in home equity loans -- a big source of buying power over the past few years -- curtailed spending among middle-income shoppers.

Sales figures were also hurt by two big shifts in the way consumers shop: the increasing popularity of gift cards and the growing migration toward online buying, which is not reflected in same-store results. Gift card sales are only posted when they are redeemed rather than bought.

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