Missives from the Holiday Shopping Season

With Christmas now just eight days away, it's becoming clearer that the holiday season is living up to the lackluster expectations.

Sales on women's apparel have been weak.

From high-end dresses to bargain coats, spending on women's apparel dropped nearly 6 percent during the first half of the Christmas season, compared with the same period last year, according to MasterCard Advisors, a division of the credit card company.

Analysts blamed a rough economy, which has discouraged women — and mothers, in particular — from splurging on clothing for themselves and a lack of compelling fashions this winter.

The drop-off, which the credit card company described Sunday as “surprising,” bodes poorly for chains like Chico's FAS and Ann Taylor, which specialize in women's clothing, and could result in steeper-than-expected discounts on their merchandise in the final week before Christmas.

Online sales have also been weak.

Sales from Nov. 1 through Dec. 11 increased 19 percent, to $20.5 billion, Reston-based ComScore said Thursday. Online sales in November and December could rise 20 percent, a record low for the industry, and slower than the 26 percent pace of a year earlier.

U.S. retailers may see the worst sales growth this holiday season since 2002 as shoppers grapple with $3-a-gallon gasoline and consumer prices that rose the most in more than two years in November. Target, Kohl's and J.C. Penney have responded with discounts of 50 percent or more to lure customers.

"If the consumer doesn't have money and isn't buying, there's only so much the online channel can do," said Larry Freed, chief executive of the online research firm ForeSee Results. "To get a 25, 30 percent growth rate is going to be tough."

That's left retailers hoping for a last-minute rush this week.

"This holiday season at this point has been disappointing, whether they're brick and mortar, catalog or online," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C. "Shopper are more frugal and cost-conscious because they have less money to spend." As for Saturday and Sunday, he said, "This weekend was busy, but it wasn't huge."

Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak RCT Corp., was more upbeat, noting that the fate of the holiday season depends on the final stretch, predicting business in the final days will be "huge." According to ShopperTrak, five of the remaining days left until Christmas account for the biggest sales days of the season.

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