Some Humbug Seen In US Holiday Sales

RETAIL OUTLOOK

IN many retailers' eyes, Christmas 1995 is starting to look a lot like Christmas '94, except for one thing: Shoppers are being careful with their cash and credit cards.

Like last year, computers, Cuisinarts, hi-fi stereos, jewelry, and video games are expected to top wish lists. Even Power Rangers are back, along with Batman and Pocahontas merchandise. But what's probably out of the question for most is that extra, frivolous purchase - the silk scarf or designer sweater. The word on the streets is ''penny pinching.'' That's good news for stores like Wal-Mart but not Talbots.

With many consumers deep in debt, continued downsizing shaking job security, and declining disposable income, industry analysts say this year's holiday shoppers are short on spending and big on saving. Analysts expect a 3 to 5 percent increase in retail sales over last year, compared with 7 percent-plus growth for the past three Christmases. Taking account of inflation, that's not very merry news for retailers who ring up about one-third of their total sales during the fourth quarter.

''Consumers are constrained,'' says Janet Mangano, retail analyst and vice president of Midlantic Bank in Edison, N.J. Yet, she contends that when push comes to shove, most shoppers will likely shell out about as much as they did last year. Analysts admit that predicting consumer buying is about as easy as predicting the weather, which, being cold in much of the country, is about the only thing working in clothing retailers' favor.

The average American consumer plans to spend about $655 on holiday gifts this season, compared with $734 last year - with men, surprisingly, spending a little more, according to the International Mass Retail Association's annual holiday shopping survey. The survey also found the majority of shoppers (68 percent) plan to pay for their holiday purchases with cash.

This year's shopper is ''cautious, conservative, and value-conscious,'' adds Joseph Ronning a retail analyst at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., a New York investment-banking firm. But ''they won't buy the least expensive thing in the place either.''

Not everyone, however, is feeling squeezed. Those in higher income brackets remain largely unaffected by debt, analysts say. Others have picked up new wealth from a wildly surging stock market during the year, which makes luxury retailers happy.

Regardless, industry watchers say this holiday shopping season - which officially starts the day after Thanksgiving - promises to be another slugfest of competing promotions. That means early discounting to lure shoppers who still abide by the just-in-time approach to holiday gift buying. That's a boon for consumers, but it will inevitably come out of the hide of merchants. (Last year, Mr. Ronning says, shoppers waited until the last 10 days to hit the malls.) Merchants, however, are keeping inventories in check, so selection will likely be slimmer.

But retailers shouldn't complain. They've practically programmed holiday shoppers to wait for those blue-light specials. A 20 percent discount has become an ''inalienable right,'' says Dana Telsey, a retail analyst at Bear Stearns in New York.

A difficult season

''There is no question retailers are fully aware this is going to be a very difficult retailing season,'' says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report, a forecasting service in Scotch Plains, N.J. ''At best, it will be lackluster for most [retailers], and poor for many.''

Even catalogue retailers are bracing for a challenging season, analysts say. Lands' End and Eddie Bauer, for example, are offering special promotions such as free delivery for early orders to entice shoppers to spend.

While computers, home electronics, and housewares are the big winners - helped by the recent trend in home as the center of family life - analysts hold little hope for apparel. Sales have done poorly during the last few months. Only men's casual wear and women's shoes (women buy eight or nine new pairs of shoe a year compared with men who buy just one) are expected to do fairly well.

''Women's apparel I don't see a lot of hope for,'' says Cynthia Cohen Turk, president of Marketplace 2000, a New York-based retail strategy firm. Her theory: Manufacturers still don't get what baby boomers want. Men's apparel, on the other hand, she says, has figured out what boomer men want.

Some bright spots

The bright spots, analysts predict, will be the discount chains - Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Kmart Corp., and Target - electronics and computer stores, high-end specialty retailers, like Tiffany's and Gucci, and national chains, in particular, Sears Roebuck & Co. ''We expect to outperform the industry,'' says Sears spokeswoman Jan Drummond. Washers, dryers, home appliances, and computers should be big Sears sellers.

Yvonne Harris, one of those uncharacteristic early-bird shoppers, says she definitely plans to buy less this Christmas, since she and her husband just purchased a new house in Roslindale, Mass. Toting a Lord & Taylor shopping bag, she says, ''Everyone will be getting clothes.''

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