Weekend Holiday Shopping Appears Mixed

Despite increased discounting, the nation's retailers had another unimpressive holiday shopping weekend, leaving them to rely more heavily on the remaining days before Dec. 25.

High-end stores continued to fare well, while the low-end to mid-level stores struggled. Meanwhile, overall business on Friday and Saturday was weak, though sales accelerated on Sunday, according to Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers (search).

"The overall weekend's business was mixed...Whatever is to happen will happen late," said Niemira on Monday, who serves as an adviser to ShopperTrak (search), which tallies sales results from 30,000 outlets. Both ShopperTrak and the International Council of Shopping Centers are expected to issue sales figures for the week ended Saturday on Tuesday.

Based on a survey of 1,000 shoppers, conducted by International Council of Shopping Centers over a four-day period ended Sunday, only 13 percent completed their holiday buying, much lower than Niemira expected.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) — which became more aggressive in pricing after a disappointing start to the holiday shopping season — continues to struggle. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer said on Saturday that for the week ended Friday, sales of winter merchandise were below expectations, and its general merchandise business was not as strong as food sales. However, the world's largest discounter is still sticking to its December sales forecast. Company officials could not be immediately reached on Monday.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. (S), which plied shoppers with early bird specials on Saturday, reported "good customer traffic," according to Bill Masterson, a company spokesman.

Meanwhile, business at luxury stores continued to be robust, with designer handbags, jewelry and items like $1,200 massage chairs being snapped up by well-heeled shoppers.

Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at mall operator Taubman Centers Inc. (search) , said business on Saturday at luxury chains was up in the high single-digit to double-digit percentages from a year ago. For the rest of the merchants, sales were even with last year or rose a modest single-digit percentage from a year ago.

"Retailers are all revved up, all ready to go, and the consumers are just taking their sweet time, walking around, checking out items, but not buying," said Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at NPD Group Inc. (search) , a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y. He checked out malls in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut over the weekend, and noted that traffic was disappointing.

"For the luxury market, it feels like Christmas, but to everybody else — the midlevel and lower-end customer — it is not going to be a great Christmas," he said.

Although gasoline prices have fallen recently, they are still high, and consumers, particularly low and middle-income Americans, have cut spending on clothing and other nonessentials. They're also nervous about the job market, whose improvement has been volatile

Based on a consumer survey conducted by the International Council of Shopping Centers, financial worries are so high that shoppers have been retrenching not because they're waiting for the better deals, but because they do not have the means to spend.

According to the survey, 39 percent of consumers interviewed said either their willingness or ability to do holiday shopping decreased over the last month. About 70 percent of that group blamed it on their own personal finances. Only 5 percent said it was due to lack of discounts.

About 13 percent said they couldn't find what they're looking for and another 12 percent said they're not sure why they are losing interest in shopping.

"What they are reacting to is some personal deterioration of personal finances, and not reacting to discounting," Niemira said.