Growth in national holiday sales bleak, local retail reports mixed

Good year for jewelry, bad year for Hawkeye merchandise

The 2012 holiday season may have been the worst for retailers since the financial crisis, with sales growth far below expectations, forcing many to offer massive post-Christmas discounts in hopes of shedding excess inventory.

While chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Gap Inc are thought to have done well, analysts expect much less from the likes of book seller Barnes & Noble Inc and department store chain J. C. Penney Co.

In Eastern Iowa, count M.C. Ginsberg: Objects of Art, 110 E. Washington St., Iowa City., in the win category.

“I was really happy to see the luxury market was still vibrant,” said Mark Ginsberg of M.C. Ginsberg: Objects of Art.

The store is known for custom-crafted and unique jewelry items. The store sold several Swiss-made Patek Philippe wrist watches that run into the “high five figures” price category, and demand remained good for custom crafted jewelry.

Sales were up almost 30 percent for the season at the store, Ginsberg said, although part of that was due to non-holiday retail sales of medical device prototypes and models. Some sales spill over, Ginsberg said, when researchers who work with his company on prototypes for medical devices become jewelry customers.

On the other hand, it wasn’t such a good year to sell University of Iowa Hawkeye logo apparel and products.

“A lot of how our sales go has to do with how the (Hawkeyes’) season does,” said Deb Heck, manager of the Black & Gold shop, 1000 25th Ave., Coralville “ There’s no bowl game this year for the first time in ... I’m not exactly sure.”

Because of the reduced fan attention, Heck did not think sales will be up to last year’s levels. The year wasn’t a washout, however. When there’s less football action to drive sales, she said sales tend to revolve more around more generic Iowa apparel that’s suitable for occasions other than games.

Growth was always expected to slow this season nationwide, though an improving employment picture and rising home values had helped mitigate the worst fears.

But then Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in late October, mild weather blunted sales of winter clothing and rising concern about the “fiscal cliff” became more of a reality, dragging down already pessimistic forecasts.

The latest sign of trouble came from MasterCard Advisors Spending Pulse, which reported holiday-related sales rose 0.7 percent from Oct. 28 through Dec. 24, compared with a 2 percent increase last year.

SpendingPulsesaid it’s the weakest holiday performance since 2008 when sales dropped sharply, although the company did not know by how much.

The preliminary estimate from SpendingPulse was in line with other estimates showing weak growth during the holiday season, when retailers can book about 30 percent of annual sales — and in many cases, half of their profits.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, said Wednesday the trade group is sticking to its forecast for sales in the November and December period to be up 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion this year. That’s more than a percentage point lower than the growth in each of the past two years, and the smallest increase since 2009 when sales were up just 0.3 percent.

Tami Smith of Fashions by the Hall Tree, a women’s apparel store in Collins Road Square shopping Center in Marion, said her store was holding its own this holiday season.

She called it “a decent year” that probably won’t stack up a whole lot different from last year.

Smith said the weather was a little better for coat sales than during the mild holiday portion of the 2011 winter, and last-minute gift card sales went better than a year ago. Fashions by the Hall Tree also has stores in Urbandale, Pella, Ankeny and Sioux City.

 This story was compiled from reports from By Dave DeWitte of The Gazette and the Associated Press and Reuters news services

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