Retailers guard profits as holiday sales start

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Sales may have risen only slightly on Black Friday as U.S. shoppers sought deals on electronics, toys and clothes, but retailers appeared to have been better-prepared to protect margins against tepid results.

At the start of the U.S. holiday shopping season on Friday and through the weekend, both discount chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc and higher-end stores like Saks Inc seemed to have lured more spending and avoided steep discounts, retail consultants and executives said on Sunday.

Specialty apparel chains, however, may face another tough year as they relied on heavy promotions to draw shoppers.

Going through the mall on Friday, the stores that had not been doing as well -- AnnTaylor, Limited, Gap -- were very aggressively promoting, said Jeff Edelman, director of retail and consumer advisory services at RSM McGladrey.

Saks, which had low inventories, Bloomingdale's, which had low inventories, were maybe 25 percent off or 30 percent off, and it was on selected items, he said. It's not as if the entire store was on sale as it was last year.

Edelman expects holiday sales to be flat this year, but he said he expected profits for most retailers to be higher.

Data released on Saturday showed that sales rose a scant 0.5 percent on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Shoppers interviewed across the country said they were lured by bargains, but many said they would stick to their budgets and avoid purchases if they could not find a good deal.

Bill Taubman of Taubman Centers Inc said that anecdotally in his 24 malls, it appeared that traffic and spending rose in the high single-digit to low double-digit percentage range on Friday. On Saturday, business slowed, and it appeared to rise in the mid to low single-digit range.

You're seeing a little bit of a barbell -- the low end of stores are clearly recovering and the high-end stores are also recovering against a low base, he said.

That does not mean consumer spending is rebounding to levels in 2007, before a global financial crisis and recession.

You're clearly down on a two-year run rate, Taubman said. But he added, margins are going to be extremely good because (retailers) have been careful about what they bought.

ShopperTrak said retail sales rose to $10.66 billion on Black Friday, which often is the single-busiest shopping day of the holiday season and can set the tone for the weeks leading up to Christmas on December 25.

In 2008, Black Friday sales measured by ShopperTrak rose 3 percent compared with the prior year's Black Friday. Last year's entire holiday season marked the worst performance in nearly 40 years. The firm stuck by its forecast for total holiday sales to rise 1.6 percent this year compared with 2008.

ShopperTrak's figures do not include online sales, which were expected to be a bright spot this holiday.

According to online retail analytics company Coremetrics, shoppers spent 35 percent more on Black Friday Web purchases than a year earlier, with the average order value reaching $170.19. Those shoppers bought an average of 5.4 items per order, up from 4.6 items last year, Coremetrics said.

(Additional reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Matthew Lewis)

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