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Retailers See Silent Nights

Holiday shoppers are sitting on the sidelines until the last minute.
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Two weeks have passed since Black Friday, the so-called official kickoff of the holiday season, and since that time shoppers have been sitting on the sidelines.

And as the second shopping weekend of December looms, industry analysts say consumers may continue to take a break before a mad dash of shopping closer to Christmas.

Sales dipped 2.6% for the week ended Dec. 2 from the previous week, according to a report from the International Council of Shopping Centers and UBS Securities, though sales advanced 3.1% year over year.

Industry analysts say shoppers are waiting for retailers to slash prices. Since Christmas falls on a Monday, there's one extra weekend to get last-minute shopping done, so consumers don't have the same sense of urgency they might have had in previous years.

In addition, the weather in many parts of the country has been unseasonably warm in recent weeks, making the holidays seem more distant than they really are.

Michael Niemira, the ICSC's chief economist and director of research, said earlier this week that only 25% of consumers surveyed have completed only 50% or more of their total holiday shopping thus far, well below last year's figure of 32%.

"This benchmark suggests consumers are procrastinating a little more than in recent years and potentially suggests a stronger late wave of holiday buying," he said in a statement.

While this weekend should see a pickup in sales, analysts are looking for the shopping season to turn white-hot during the last weekend before Christmas, particularly on Dec. 23.

"The customer knows the longer they wait, the prices are going to come down even lower," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a New York-based retail consulting and investment banking firm. "People are waiting for reductions. I believe the season will be made in the last five or six days."

Scott Rothbort, founder of LakeView Asset Management and a contributor to

Street Insight

, says he expects shopping to be somewhat level until the last week before Christmas. This weekend will see big volume, he says, but not as big as in the upcoming weeks.

If sales don't pick up, of course, the markdowns will come.

"People know it's not a question of whether this stuff is going on sale, its when," says Craig Johnson, president of the retail consulting firm Customer Growth Partners. "Who wants to pay retail?"

Davidowitz says shoppers may be reluctant to spend because they are waiting for retailers to match deals given on Black Friday. He criticizes retailers for focusing so much on Black Friday sales, when the day after Thanksgiving is only the sixth-biggest shopping day.

"Why open stores at midnight?" he says. "Why spend so much money on advertising and spend so much on door-busters? Too much was spent for too little."

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For instance, Davidowitz says the so-called "door-busters" -- drastically reduced items designed to bring customers into the stores to buy other items -- didn't help




"Wal-Mart had great door-busters," he said, "and that's what the customers bought. They said, 'thank you, and by the way, when you have another 40% off, call me.' It's a game of chicken."

Rothbort says he doesn't expect a lot of big markdowns, especially in consumer electronics. "Maybe in apparel -- that's where people look for sales," he says.

Indeed, Johnson expects electronics sales to be strong, while apparel will be more of a mixed bag.

He says stores such as






are seeing strong traffic, and others, like






, are lagging.

Rothbort notes that high-end stores should fare well, because people who shop in stores such as






don't go there for sales.

"There's very little markdown at the high end," he said. "If you've got the money, do you really care if a shirt costs $179 or $199? If you don't have the money and the shirt is $29 compared with $19, it's a big difference."

Though markdowns could put major pressure on retailers' margins, Rothbort says inventory will be key to determining the extent of the potential margin woes.

"I'm not sensing that any of these retailers have inventory problems, Rothbort says. "I think retailers are much better at controlling their inventory, either through distribution centers or inventory technology they've installed."

Johnson says nearly all the price cuts will be part of a planned promotional pricing sequence.

"It's not pressing the panic button," he says.