Jan 7, 2009
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US specialty chains see dismal December-SpendingPulse

Jan 7, 2009

Gap spring 2009

By Martinne Geller

NEW YORK, Jan 7 (Reuters) - U.S. retailers experienced a dismal December, as a year-long recession and winter storms kept many potential shoppers at home, according to data released on Wednesday by SpendingPulse.

The figures, from the retail data service of MasterCard Advisors, offer an early indication of the weakness of December same-store sales, which most chains, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N), J.C. Penney Co Inc (JCP.N) and Gap Inc (GPS.N) will report on Thursday morning.

Analysts are bracing for potential profit warnings from retailers, who will finally give their own assessments of the critical holiday shopping season after other forecasters have proclaimed 2008 the weakest season since at least 1970.

"The headline from the holiday season is 'one of the most challenging seasons we've seen in decades'. That main story hasn't changed," said Michael McNamara, SpendingPulse's vice president. "The key variable is when you look at December, (there are) signs of stabilization."

Total sales at specialty retailers, which SpendingPulse defines as apparel chains and department stores, fell 18.3 percent in December. But that is an improvement from the 20.2 percent decline the sector experienced in November.

Likewise, December saw specialty men's apparel sales fall 11.3 percent, versus 16.1 percent in November, and electronics and appliances sales fell 21.4 percent, versus a 25 percent drop in November.

With 2008's U.S. Thanksgiving holiday falling later in November than in the prior year, December accounted for even more of the holiday shopping period.

McNamara said December sales were aided by the fact that Christmas was on Thursday, so retailers were able to attract customers into stores on the weekend immediately after the holiday. Lower gasoline prices may have also helped, he said.

SpendingPulse tracks sales in the MasterCard payments network and couples them with estimates for all other payment forms.

Another retail tracking firm, ShopperTrak, said on Wednesday that its retail sales estimate for the week ending Jan. 3 rose 11.6 percent. Foot traffic to stores was flat, the company said.

"The 2008 calendar shift provided a boost to both traffic and sales levels last week as more consumers were able to take the week off and shop in the days leading up to New Year's," said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak.


Despite improvement in some areas, sales trends for luxury goods, furniture and women's apparel worsened. Specialty women's apparel sales fell 20.2 percent in December, a deeper decline than the 18.4 percent decline seen in November.

Sales in the specialty retail furniture and furnishings segment fell 21.4 percent in December, versus down 20 percent in November.

But perhaps most dramatic was the decline in luxury goods, which for SpendingPulse includes sales for high-end restaurants, leather goods, department stores and jewelry retailers. Luxury sales fell 27.6 percent in December, magnifying the decline in sales the category has seen since the financial crisis exploded in mid-September.

Luxury sales fell 4.8 percent in September, 20.1 percent in October, 24.4 percent in November and 27.6 percent in December, SpendingPulse said.

Some of December's weakness may be the result of severe snow storms in parts of the United States just before Christmas, McNamara said, noting that up to about 30 percent of a jewelry store's fourth-quarter sales can occur in the 10 days before Christmas. (Reporting by Martinne Geller; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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