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Retailers report a cheerful holiday sales season

After an uneven start to the holiday season, retailers posted a solid gain, prompted in part by heavy spending on home furnishings, consumer electronics and apparel.

“People were buying not only for their family and friends, but we saw a lot of people with really generous hearts shopping for people affected by Hurricane Katrina, beginning in early October,” said Audrie Thompson, general manager of Northpark Mall in Ridgeland. “We’ve seen a tremendous outpouring this year of good will and giving, and this community has been no different.”

Regionally, the Southeast led the nation with the highest increase (7.4%). Nationwide sales of all products excluding gasoline increased 5.2% between November 25 and December 25, according to an estimate by MasterCard Advisor’s Spending Pulse Report. The 2005 gain, adjusted to add an extra sales day, was down from the 8.1% increase reported last year.

Cyberspace took a healthy chunk of holiday spending this year, with 59 million shoppers avoiding mall crowds and heavy traffic to research gift ideas, compare prices and buy online.

On Monday, December 12, Amazon.com customers ordered 3.6 million items, or 41 items per second. The peak of the online giant’s holiday season correlates to the trend in online retailing for busy Mondays, reflecting consumers’ tendency to shop by computer at work after spending the weekend browsing bricks-and-mortar stores. Best Buy, Walmart.com, eBay and Target followed Amazon as the most visited e-commerce sites, according to Majestic Research.

Through December 22, sales for online retailers were up 24% from the previous year to $17.5 billion, according to ComScore Networks Inc. By the end of December, Internet sales were projected to top $19 billion. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, top-selling items included clothing ($4.7 billion), followed by computer hardware and ancillary products and consumer electronics.

Blockbuster effectively blended in-store and online sales. On Black Friday weekend, 145 million shoppers spent nearly $28 billion. Last year, the entertainment chain registered 133 million shoppers during the same holiday season kickoff weekend.

Local fare

Despite online competition, local retailers fared well. At Circuit City in Jackson, sales rose slightly, thanks to the popularity of iPods and MP3 players. At Annelle Primos & Associates, a European antique and gift store in Highland Village, tabletop decorative accessories and other gift items sold briskly, reported David Spurk.

Keith Kincaid, co-owner of The Rogue Limited in Jackson, reported a consistent double-digit increase for the last three months, primarily boosted by the sale of suits and sport coats and luxury items.

Steve Scott, owner of Great Scott in Jackson, reported a 10% increase, triggered by sales of cashmere apparel and sports shirts. “Last year’s outwear sales weren’t strong because of the weather, but because it was colder this fall, we sold more leather coats,” he said.

Kincaid was also pleasantly surprised with the additional selling season for dressy coats. “We kept selling out of our four-button wool coats,” he said. “We sold out and reordered, sold and reordered again.”

A private year-end sale for loyal Great Scott customers also increased holiday sales. “We had a great Christmas season,” said Scott, “and we’re getting ready to go to market and do it all over again.”

Thompson said robust traffic continued throughout the holidays, with customers carrying multiple bags throughout Northpark Mall several days after Christmas. “After Christmas sales were strong because the day after Christmas fell on the beginning of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa,” she said.

A tricky figure that’s difficult to pinpoint is the sale of gift cards, which hit a record high at Northpark Mall on Christmas Eve, because about 60% of gift cards are typically redeemed between December 26 and the end of January, and sales are only recorded when customers redeem them, said Michael Niemira, chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“People buying gift cards weren’t necessarily procrastinators,” noted Thompson. “Gift cards were popping up on nearly everyone’s wish lists.”

Overall, the 2005 holiday season delivered a solid payoff for retailers despite fluctuating gasoline prices and the economic disruptions created by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“It’s a bit softer than last year,” said Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis of MasterCard Advisors. “With everything we have been through in 2005, this is perfect.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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