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Shoppers disappoint retailers this holiday season

December 26, 2012
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photo - Shoppers walk past a Paris store decorated for Christmas, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. Across Europe, holiday "shoppers" this season are doing more browsing than buying. In Rome, some shop for their Christmas presents in sales throughout the year. In Paris, refurbished second-hand toys are attracting buyers. Retailers remain hopeful for a last-minute burst of Christmas consumerism, and some governments are encouraging it by allowing stores to open on Sunday. But with economies across the region slowing and unemployment soaring, analysts say holiday spending in Europe is bound to disappoint for the fourth year in a row.  (AP Photo/Christophe Ena) Photo by
Shoppers walk past a Paris store decorated for Christmas, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. Across Europe, holiday "shoppers" this season are doing more browsing than buying. In Rome, some shop for their Christmas presents in sales throughout the year. In Paris, refurbished second-hand toys are attracting buyers. Retailers remain hopeful for a last-minute burst of Christmas consumerism, and some governments are encouraging it by allowing stores to open on Sunday. But with economies across the region slowing and unemployment soaring, analysts say holiday spending in Europe is bound to disappoint for the fourth year in a row. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena) Photo by  

WASHINGTON — U.S. shoppers spent cautiously this holiday season, a disappointment for retailers who slashed prices to lure people into stores and now must hope for a post-Christmas burst of spending.

Sales of electronics, clothing, jewelry and home goods in the two months before Christmas increased 0.7 percent compared with last year, according to the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse report.

That was below the healthy 3 to 4 percent growth that analysts had expected — and it was the worst year-over-year performance since 2008, when spending shrank sharply during the Great Recession. In 2011, retail sales climbed 4 to 5 percent during November and December, according to ShopperTrak.

This year's shopping season was marred by bad weather and rising uncertainty about the economy in the face of possible tax hikes and spending cuts early next year. Some analysts say the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., earlier this month may also have chipped away at shoppers' enthusiasm.

Retailers still have time to make up lost ground. The final week of December accounts for about 15 percent of the month's sales, said Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse.

Indeed, on the day after Christmas, there was a crowd equivalent to a busy weekend day at Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta by midday. Laschonda Pitluck, 18, a student in Atlanta, had held off earlier because she's a student and saving all her money for college. Last year she spent over $100 on gifts but this year she's keeping it under $50.

She found 50 percent off things she bought, including a hoodie and jeans for herself at American Eagle and a shirt at Urban Outfitters. She said she would have bought the clothes if they hadn't been 50 percent off.

"I wasn't looking for deals before Christmas, I waited until after," she said. She bought boxers for her boyfriend, and was looking for a hat but couldn't find one.

In New York, the Macy's location at Herald Square also was buzzing with shoppers. Ulises Guzman, 30, a social worker, said he held off buying until the final days before Christmas, knowing the deals would get better as stores got desperate. He said he was expecting discounts of at least 50 percent.

He saw a coat he wanted at Banana Republic for $200 in the days before Christmas but decided to hold off on making a purchase; on Wednesday, he got it for $80.

"I'm not looking at anything that's original price," he said.

Holiday sales are a crucial indicator of the economy's strength. November and December account for up to 40 percent of annual sales for many retailers. If those sales don't materialize, stores are forced to offer steeper discounts. That's a boon for shoppers, but it cuts into stores' profits.

Spending by consumers accounts for 70 percent of overall economic activity, so the eight-week period encompassed by the SpendingPulse data is seen as a critical time not just for retailers but for manufacturers, wholesalers and companies at every other point along the supply chain.

The SpendingPulse data released Tuesday, which captures sales from Oct. 28 through Dec. 24 across all payment methods, is the first major snapshot of holiday retail sales. A clearer picture will emerge next week as retailers like Macy's and Target report revenue from stores open for at least a year. That sales measure is widely watched in the retail industry because it excludes revenue from stores that recently opened or closed, which can be volatile.

In the run-up to Christmas, analysts blamed bad weather for putting a damper on shopping. In late October, Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, which account for 24 percent of U.S. retail sales.

Shopping picked up in the second half of November, but then the threat of the country falling off a "fiscal cliff" gained strength, throwing consumers off track once again.

Lawmakers have yet to reach a deal that would prevent tax increases and government spending cuts set to take effect at the beginning of 2013. If the cuts and tax hikes kick in and stay in place for months, the Congressional Budget Office says the nation could fall back into recession.

Shopping over the past two months was weakest in areas affected by Sandy and a more recent winter storm in the Midwest. Sales declined by 3.9 percent in the mid-Atlantic and 1.4 percent in the Northeast compared with last year. They rose 0.9 percent in the north central part of the country.

The West and South posted gains of between 2 percent and 3 percent, still weaker than the 3 percent to 4 percent increases expected by many retail analysts.

Online sales, typically a bright spot, grew only 8.4 percent from Oct. 28 through Saturday, according to SpendingPulse. That's a dramatic slowdown from the online sales growth of 15 to 17 percent seen in the prior 18-month period, according to the data service.

Online sales did enjoy a modest boost after the recent snowstorm that hit the Midwest, McNamara said. Online sales make up about 10 percent of total holiday business.

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