Holiday Season Decent, Online Sales Surge

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U.S. retailers rolled out the post-Christmas clearance sales and bet on throngs of shoppers bearing gift cards to provide a sales rush as they wrapped up a decent but unspectacular holiday selling season.

Televisions and MP3 players trumped sweaters and scarves, putting pressure on apparel chains such as Gap Inc. (GPS), and Wall Street on Tuesday remained wary as heavy discounting raised questions about fourth-quarter profits.

Analysts said most major chains appeared to be on track to meet December sales forecasts, but Christmas Eve foot traffic was a bit slower than some retailers had hoped. With Christmas falling on a Sunday, chain stores were banking on that final shopping day on Saturday to provide a last-minute kick.

"One extra day of selling, a more favorable calendar, and a rush of procrastinating shoppers appeared to keep our sector holiday forecast for growth of 3 percent to 5 percent intact," Susquehanna Financial Group analysts wrote in a note to clients.

But clothing, jewelry and toys -- the traditional staples of the holiday shopping season -- were among the laggards, and featured prominently on clearance racks.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), which said on Saturday that December sales were on track to meet its forecast, featured a Playskool VideoNow Jr. toy for $29, marked down from $69.84. A diamond and gold bracelet was reduced to $47 from $60.

Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, has said that huge demand for gifts cards will push some business into January instead of December. Retailers record revenue from gift cards only when they are redeemed for merchandise, so the cards have boosted after-Christmas demand in recent years.

Kmart's (SHLD) clearance sale -- under the slogan "The savings still feel a lot like Christmas -- included Thalia Sodi sweaters for $9, marked down from $19.99, and Martha Stewart Everyday towels for as little as $2.24, down from $2.99.

Target Corp. (TGT) advertised savings up to 60 percent on items ranging from holiday decorations to women's clothing. The No. 2 U.S. discount retailer is expected to update its sales trends later on Tuesday.

Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, said the weaker demand for apparel and toys reflects a shift in Christmas spending patterns. In 1992, softlines such as apparel and home furnishings accounted for more than 30 percent of holiday sales, but today they make up barely 20 percent.

"For generations characterized by softlines merchandise -- outfits for mom, neckties for dad, sweaters for everyone -- the holiday season has evolved sharply in recent years to one dominated by digital electronics, appliances and home-oriented durables," he said.

That spells trouble for apparel chains that rely on holiday shoppers for the biggest portion of annual sales and profit.

Analysts have been watching Gap particularly closely as the retailer struggles to reverse slumping sales at its namesake chain. The retailer took the unusual step of abandoning television advertising in favor of newspaper inserts and mini catalogs this holiday season.

"At Gap brand, the holiday story will boil down to how well margins were managed with tightly controlled inventories, a less-than-desirable assortment, and no television advertising," Susquehanna analysts said. (OSTK) on Tuesday said its holiday shopping season was not as strong as in previous years and fell short of expectations.

Online retailers continue to show explosive growth, with (AMZN) reporting a record 108 million items ordered this holiday season. The retailer gave no further details on sales and profit, however.

Investors will get a better idea of holiday sales and profits next week, when most major U.S. retailers release December sales figures.