Weak November Puts Christmas Sales in Doubt

NEW YORK — A better-than-expected Black Friday couldn’t save November comparable-store sales, as most retailers posted double-digit declines last Thursday. That amplified anxieties of a dismal holiday and a potentially deeper and longer economic downturn.

Retailers hoping to improve their comps faced an uphill climb, including battling an uncooperative calendar that put Black Friday at the tail end of a month of flagging sales, a strengthening U.S. dollar, crumbling financial markets and government data suggesting that the country had been in a recession for a year. No department store firms managed a comp increase.

“At the very least, Black Friday was a very real wake-up call to the consumer to remind them that Christmas is right around the corner,” said Piper Jaffray retail analyst Neely Tamminga. “There was clearly some pent-up demand,” she said, pointing to strong sales during Thanksgiving weekend.

Citigroup broadlines analyst Deborah Weinswig noted one impending difficulty for retailers this holiday is that consumers will wait until the weekend before Christmas, or “Super Saturday,” to do their shopping. “Consumers will pull back a bit, and then we will see a surge at the end,” she predicted.

The lone footwear firm to report, Bakers Footwear Group, said November comps rose 3.6 percent, including a 13.4 percent comp increase for Nov. 28 and 29 combined. Strength during the month was seen in boots and dress shoes.

Once again, the department store sector was the hardest hit. Of the bunch, November’s biggest loser was Kohl’s Corp., which posted a 17.5 percent drop in comps, as low traffic and a shifting calendar hurt the Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based retailer. Macy’s Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. posted 13.3 and 11.9 percent comp declines, respectively, and Bon-Ton Stores Inc. was down 16 percent.

Upscale retailers Nordstrom Inc. and Neiman Marcus Inc. posted comp declines of 15.9 and 11.8, respectively, as New York-based Saks Inc. reported a 5.2 percent dip in comps. Neiman’s and Saks both cited shoes as strong sellers in the month, however.

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