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NEW YORK CITY-After a frenzied Black Friday holiday promotional blitz, consumers took a break, and retail chain store sales dropped 3.1% for the week ending Saturday, Dec. 3, compared with the week before Thanksgiving, according to ICSC data. On a year-over-year basis, the week’s sales decline was 3.5%.

Although the decline “was not encouraging,” says Michael P. Niemira, ICSC’s chief economist, “it was not necessarily worrisome as only 9% of households had completed their holiday shopping by Sunday, Dec. 4.” The amount of holiday shopping completed by the Sunday after Thanksgiving is identical to where the season was a year ago at that time, according to ICSC’s consumer tracking survey.

“Obviously, this also means that there is a considerable amount of shopping yet to come, and December’s performance will be critical to the success of the whole season,” he says. Niemira anticipates comp-store sales to increase by between 3% and 3.5% on a year-over-year basis for December.

The post-Thanksgiving-week drop has become “a standard part of the shopping season,” Niemira points out. The pattern has occurred for the past five years.

Two factors have, and could continue to impact holiday sales: gas prices and the weather. The average price of regular-grade gasoline on Dec. 4 edged lower compared with the week before for the ninth consecutive week. It was at its lowest level since June 13, according to data released by the US Energy Information Administration.

“That certainly increased the consumers’ discretionary purchasing power in recent weeks,” says Niemira. Lower gasoline prices could help lift sales later in the month.

During Thanksgiving week 2004, “the entire US had near record warm weather temperatures with less than 18% of the nation with snow coverage,” according to Bill Kirk of SDI/Weather Trends. “This year, snow cover was close to 50%,” he observed, noting that the entire northern half of the country was blanketed in snow, which is much above normal for this time of year.

He predicts temperatures will approach record cold levels earlier in this winter season. “While the cold and snow is great for ‘need’ or ‘must have’ categories, it can be a big negative for overall store traffic. December is on pace to average in the top 15 coldest in 111 years,” Kirk warns in the ICSC report. Niemira notes that customer traffic did slow over the week, and sales slowed with it.

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