Retailers hope big Saturday will clinch season

By James B. Kelleher and Jonathan Lentz

CHICAGO/SECAUCUS, New Jersey (BestGrowthStock) – The last shopping weekend before Christmas kicked off with great weather, but not the throngs of shoppers retailers and investors were hoping would clinch a season that has so far beat expectations.

In New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles, the last Saturday before Christmas — dubbed “Super Saturday” by retailers — appeared fairly unremarkable: a busy day, to be sure, but not extraordinarily so.

Ramesh Swamy, a retail analyst with Deloitte, had visited several malls around Los Angeles and reported feeling “overserviced” in some.

“When I would walk into one of these stores, I would get a lot of attention because there weren’t that many folks in there,” Swamy said. He also said some apparel retailers were “just clearly desperate” with as many as 100 “75 percent off signs” in just one section of their stores.

The Saturday before Christmas is typically one of the busiest shopping days of the year as last-minute shoppers look to finish off their Christmas list. The 2010 season got off to a strong start on the day after Thanksgiving — known as “Black Friday” — and analysts are expecting this to be the best holiday season for retailers since 2007.

A downpour in Southern California aside, the weather on Saturday was far better for retailers than last year, when a blizzard slammed the Northeast, cutting into sales on “Super Saturday.”

“It’s a super day for shopping,” said Scott Bernhardt, the chief operating officer of Planalytics. “Ninety-plus percent of the nation is enjoying very good shopping weather, especially compared with last year.”

In Secaucus, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, the day started off with uncrowded aisles and short checkout lines at the local Walmart.

The light traffic at Walmart meant Lisa O’Neill, a 41-year-old real estate agent from nearby Nutley, New Jersey, had no trouble getting what she came for: Christmas card pictures and a BlackBerry phone she bought as a gift for her daughter.

O’Neill said she had finished the bulk of her shopping on the trip, with about 25 percent left with a week to go. “This year I’m very far behind,” she said. “Otherwise you would not see me here on a Saturday at Walmart.”

Shopper traffic picked up in the afternoon everywhere, even Los Angeles, despite the bad weather. But at the Wal-Mart Stores Inc outlet in Secaucus, store employees said it was not nearly as busy as Black Friday.

Investors were crossing their fingers and hoping for a big turnout to help lift retail stocks, which have trailed the broader market since Black Friday, the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving kickoff to the holiday season.

The Standard & Poor’s Retailing Index is up 2.6 percent since Black Friday, trailing the 4.7 percent increase of the Standard & Poor’s 500 even as industry forecasts for holiday sales have been on the rise.

The National Retail Federation now expects sales to rise 3.3 percent in November and December, up from its prior view of 2.3 percent.

Analysts said that a strong holiday season had been priced in by investors even before Thanksgiving, so it will take a strong finish to the season to push those stocks higher.

“We need packed malls,” Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said when asked what would move retail stocks.

Richard Hastings, a consumer strategist at Global Hunter Strategies, said retail stocks in general can rise another 5 percent in the next month or so if Christmas turns out to be a bigger bonanza than expected. But they can also slip 3.5 percent if December disappoints.

Consumer spending makes up about 70 percent of the U.S. economy and this holiday season has been closely watched for signs that a recovery is gaining traction despite persistently high unemployment.

With just seven days to go before Christmas, Swamy said retailers appear to have split into two groups: those keen “to clear merchandise today” by offering lots of big markdowns and one-day-only sales and those playing a more controlled, long game — and trying to extend the season beyond Christmas Day.

The latter, Swamy said, were “holding the line on their markdowns and looking a little more patient. Some of them were even advertising early hours and sales on December 26.”

The still sluggish economy has a lot of shoppers, including Brian Jackson, a 30-year-old construction worker, spending less this year.

“It’s rough,” Jackson said outside a Toys R Us store in Secaucus on Saturday afternoon, where he was wrapping up his Christmas shopping for his three young children.

The Toys R Us store was bustling on Saturday afternoon, with parents navigating crowded aisles for Paper Jamz guitars and Toy Story 3 figurines, though checkout lines were short.

(Additional reporting by Brad Dorfman in Chicago, Phil Wahba and Dhanya Skariachan in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Eric Walsh)

Retailers hope big Saturday will clinch season