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NEW YORK CITY-After two weeks of relatively sluggish nationwide retail sales, shoppers seem to be returning to the stores, with the latest ICSC-UBS Retail Chain Store Sales Index showing a 1.2% increase for the week ending Dec. 11, compared with the previous week. Moreover, if polling data on holiday shopping habits are correct, people will hit the stores even harder this week and the next, boosting retail trade even more.

The ICSC-UBS ongoing holiday shopping survey, conducted between Dec. 9 and 12, found that 43% of shoppers were more than half completed with holiday gift buying, up from 32% in the prior week. But still only 13% have completed their gift shopping, which suggests that a late surge in customer traffic is likely as consumers shop to polish off their holiday gift list.

“This past week provided a twinkle of hope that sales are beginning to unfold, especially at discounters and home stores,” said Michael Niemira, ICSC’s chief economist and director of research. “Like past seasons, consumers continue to wait to the last minute to complete their holiday shopping, and this year is no different. With only 13% of consumers having completed their holiday shopping, consumers will need to step up their pace, which will likely boost the end of the season. For December, expect sales to grow by 3.5% to 4.0%, on a year-over-year basis.”

Another positive factor cited by the organization in spurring sales last week was the relatively warm weather across the nation, when average temps were 8.4 degrees Fahrenheit (4.6 degrees Celsius) warmer than the same period last year, according to the National Weather Service. On the other hand, the ICSC notes that gasoline prices are up about 27% in December versus the prior year, and “this is paring chain store demand by about 1.0 percentage point, based on our research. Electronics are doing well this season, but product demand remains spotty more generally. Also, Internet and mail order are taking larger share of holiday spending.”

A nearly simultaneous report by the National Retail Federation buttresses the case the there will be an uptick of sales as shoppers hit the stores in the closing days of the all-important Christmas sales season. According to the third installment of the NRF 2004 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, released yesterday, the “average consumer” has completed 46.3% of his or her holiday shopping. Last year at the same time, the average person had completed 52.0% of his or her shopping, despite snowstorms across much of the country. The survey also found that 37.5 million consumers haven’t yet started their holiday shopping.

“There’s little doubt that stores will be packed for the next two weeks with last-minute shoppers,” said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin. “The good news for retailers is that it appears consumers have much more of their shopping left to complete.”

Consumers who have made holiday purchases have been most likely to purchase books, CDs, DVDs, videos or video games (42.1%); clothing and clothing accessories (41.7%); and toys (34.6%), according to the NRF. Though only 22.7% of consumers have already purchased gift cards or gift certificates, the organization expects that category to be one of the most popular last-minute purchases. NRF projects that holiday sales will increase 4.5% this year to $219.9 billion.

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