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Stores Busy As Season Ends

December 24, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ Stores were crowded in the final hours of the Christmas shopping season as bargain-hunters and procrastinators gave retailers a much-needed last-minute sales surge.

Several retailers reported strong business as the season ended. But in spite of the big finish, Christmas 1991 was likely to be an overall disappointment for the retail industry.

Results were expected to vary, with discounters and some specialty stores likely to have stronger results than department stores and general merchandisers.

Shoppers mobbed Sears, Roebuck and Co. stores as the season waned, Matt Howard, senior vice president for marketing, said Tuesday.

Howard shied away from pinning a definitive label on the season. He said only that Sears had a strong start and finish and a weaker-than-expected stretch the first 2 1/2 weeks of December.

But when asked how business compared to sales of healthier economic times, he responded, ″This will not be a legendary Christmas.″

The weak economy has clouded the season for consumers and retailers. Shoppers have said they were spending less on gifts and seeking bargains because of jitters about the economy and their jobs.

Discounter Kmart Corp. has been one beneficiary of consumers’ caution, said Orren Knauer, director of investor relations.

Monday was ″an enormous day,″ at Kmart, Knauer said. He predicted Kmart’s overall sales for December would rise 8 percent to 9 percent from 1990.

Kmart and rival discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest retailer, are likely to outperform the rest of the retail industry this season.

Thomas J. Tashjian of First Manhattan Co. joined other securities analysts in predicting the retail industry’s overall sales would be little changed from the depressed levels of Christmas 1990.

″No matter how we want to try and approach it, the recession is there,″ he said. ″The consumer has decided to go ahead and tighten up.″

Wal-Mart said Monday it was pleased with sales. But spokesman Don Shinkle described the season as tough.

Sears’ Howard said consumer behavior changed significantly this Christmas.

″We’re seeing customers purchasing more small-ticket items than in previous years,″ he said.

Howard also saw a shift in the kinds of gifts people were buying, with bed and bath items more popular this year as shoppers sought practicality. J.C. Penney Co. Inc. also reported home furnishings were big sellers.

Many retailers, who went into the season with lowered expectations, were happy to reach Christmas 1990 levels.

John Devine, chief executive officer of Child World Inc., sounded cheerful as he reported ″excellent″ weekend sales and predicted, ″this December will be almost even with last year.″

Consumers shopping Tuesday were either procrastinators or looking for bargains.

Peter Macklin was walking along Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue with six large Saks Fifth Avenue bags. But he was wasn’t done shopping yet.

″This is the first year I waited until the last minute, and I’m actually lucky because I’ve bought everything on sale,″ Macklin said. He said he usually starts shopping just after Thanksgiving but was too busy with work this year.

Others said they purposely waited till the end because prices would be lower.

Mary Kelly was getting 25 percent off two belts at a Plymouth women’s apparel store in Manhattan. ″Waiting for the last minute pays because the stores are desperate for sales,″ she said.

Wayne Franklin, shopping in Chicago, said the economy has affected his buying habits. He waited this year because of ″better deals and more sales.″

Some latecomers paid a price for tardiness - retailers who kept tight inventories had run out of some merchandise.

But even on Christmas Eve, some people were still holding off shopping, waiting for even better prices.

Wendy Jamerson, shopping in Atlanta, said, ″I want to wait until Thursday because the prices will be lower.″

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