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By
Reuters
Published
Nov 18, 2010
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Analysis: Retail CEOs say fight is on for holiday gains

By
Reuters
Published
Nov 18, 2010

NEW YORK | Wed Nov 17, 2010 - Top U.S. retailers are leaving little to chance in their fight for holiday sales and are focused more on poaching customers from their rivals than on a real change in the spending habits of Americans.



Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N), looking to turn around six straight quarters of U.S. same-store sales declines, is offering free shipping for online orders over the holidays, encroaching on Amazon.com Inc's (AMZN.O) territory.

Department store operator J.C. Penney Co Inc (JCP.N) is betting its bigger roster of exclusive lines, such as MNG by Mango fast fashion, will help it win market share from Macy's Inc (M.N) and Kohl's Corp (KSS.N).

Total industry sales are expected to rise 2.3 percent this year, according to the National Retail Federation, a marked improvement over the 1.1 percent gain last year and a 3.4 percent drop in 2008.

But as a weak economy and high unemployment keep consumers counting their pennies, retail executives say their own sales growth will come at the expense of the competition.

"We knew the consumer was not going to help us much this year, we had to create our own growth," said Penney CEO Mike Ullman.

Nordstrom Inc's (JWN.N) president Blake Nordstrom said the department store operator does "not anticipate any meaningful change in overall consumer spending."

Target Corp (TGT.N) CEO Gregg Steinhafel said the discounter expects same-store sales during the holiday quarter to "be the best of any quarter in the last three years," with a projected increase of 2 percent to 4 percent.

Target's strategy to lure customers away from Wal-Mart and others includes a built-in discount for shoppers who use its store credit card, adding more fresh food to its stores and free shipping.

NOT A HOLIDAY OF EQUALS

Retailers ranging from luxury chain Saks Inc (SKS.N) and Wal-Mart to Target and Penney expect sales gains during the holiday quarter compared with an abysmal 2009 and 2008.

Kohl's, Macy's and Penney have all estimated that comparable store sales during the quarter could rise by up to 4 percent. The period includes the week between U.S. Thanksgiving in November to Christmas on December 25 and can account for one-third of annual sales for some store chains.

"We feel much better about the overall tone of business and the way our customers are responding to our initiatives," Saks CEO Steve Sadove said. "A complete recovery will take more time."

Saks forecast same-store sales, will rise in the mid-single digit range on a percentage basis during the holiday quarter, as shoppers feel better about splurging.

But the amount of lift varies widely between the companies and, even if the forecasts pan out, they will still be far below 2007 levels.

For example, analysts expect Saks' sales for its full 2010 fiscal year to reach $2.7 billion, up from last year, but still 16 percent below levels three years ago.

At the other end of the retail spectrum, Wal-Mart's clientele continues to live paycheck to paycheck.

"It's every bit as pronounced as we've seen it," Wal-Mart Chief Financial Officer Charles Holley said of the paycheck cycle. "The consumer is still very focused on price and value."

Shoppers might be on firmer financial footing -- Nordstrom reported a 4.9 percent decline in delinquencies on its credit cards -- but retailers still need to coax them into stores with discounts and other ploys.

Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N) CEO Brian Dunn told Reuters he expects consumers will shop later this year and check out specials.

"We're seeing a promotional environment. I don't know that it's uniquely different than last year," Kohl's CEO Kevin Mansell added.

By Phil Wahba

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Noel Randewich; editing by Michele Gershberg and Andre Grenon)

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