Flurries of bargains instead of snowflakes are swirling about shoppers this Christmas season, with major retailers cutting prices on increasing numbers of items as the holiday approaches.
"Retailers are pushing winter apparel out the door as fast as they can" at discounts that are "awfully close to dumping," said a spokesman for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, blaming the unusually balmy temperatures for the depressed clothing sales. "This is the first time I will honestly say weather has been a factor. This fall could not have possibly been worse."
Nationally, stores have been putting more and more merchandise on sale, cutting an average 20 to 50 percent off original list prices, retail analysts said yesterday. The deep price cuts may offset any increase in sales, resulting in no increase in profits this Christmas season.
Retailers had predicted a 10 to 11 percent increase in sales this year compared with last year, but instead are expecting an overall increase of 6 to 8 percent, the analysts said. Sales should be boosted by this year's two additional shopping days, they added.
"Profits at worst could be down, and at best could be flat overall," said Stacy Ruchlamer, an analyst with Shearson Lehman/American Express Inc.
"Sales are just a little better than flat," said William Striegl, district manager of J. C. Penney Co. "We need cold weather to sell coats, jackets, headwear, mittens -- all of that is just sitting there. What we're getting is not coming easily, it's coming with a lot of coaxing and a lot of advertising."
This year's advertising style reflects the retail slump. Many ads are long, detailed lists of discounted items or large announcements of sales at one-third or one-half off.
Despite intense promotions, sales had not picked up as of the midweek last week, Ruchlamer said. But many stores were expecting gains over last weekend and are pinning their hopes on a last-minute buying binge this weekend.
Last weekend's national sales results were not available yesterday, but Sears Roebuck & Co., the nation's largest retailer, reported an improvement in its sales.
"The weekend surprised the life out of me; it was better than anticipated," said William I. Bass, chairman and chief executive of Sears Merchandising Group.
Sears now expects its December sales to be bigger than last December's. Before last weekend, Sears had not expected an increase, Bass said, noting that consumers seem to be postponing their purchases this year.
The Hecht Co. had a "very excellent weekend," said Chairman J. Warren Harris, adding that the department store chain expects "another record-breaking Christmas."
Unlike other stores, Hecht's expects a sales increase of 10 to 11 percent this year over last year, Harris said, adding that the store is selling four times as many videocassette recorders as last year.
Hecht's "has not added any promotions" and is pricing its goods "according to plan," Harris said. The warm weather has hurt winter apparel sales but helps other sales by encouranging buyers to go out and shop, he said. "The entire store does better."
Medium-priced department stores are having the most difficulties, while upscale stores and the discount chains are doing the best, Ruchlamer said. "K mart is doing super," about 15 to 17 percent ahead of last year, she said.
Bloomingdale's is "doing very well, a bit ahead of last year" said spokeswoman Ann Stock. "But we don't see a double-digit increase" in sales compared with last year, she added.
Prices should hold until Christmas if the results for last weekend show sales picking up, retail experts said. But come January, Striegl said, "The sales will be bigger than ever."