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December 17 , 2009

Retailers sell out of key items as holiday shopping counts down

December 17, 2009

By MARIA HALKIAS / The Dallas Morning News

Heading into the weekend before Christmas and the final days of Hanukkah, shoppers are encountering out-of-stock items in everything from basic wrinkle-free men's shirts at L.L. Bean to fashion-forward shearling women's boots at J.Crew. 

Some retailers are trying to decide if they want to put the entire store on sale at this critical point in their holiday sales season. Other stores are sticking to already aggressive promotions planned months ago as they watch one item after another sell out.

One-third of shoppers have found an item they wanted was no longer available, according to a survey released Thursday by Consumer Reports .

At the beginning of the season, the International Council of Shopping Centers asked consumers if they would shop earlier knowing that retailers intentionally lowered inventories and "the answer overwhelmingly was no," said Michael P. Niemira, the council's director of research and chief economist.

Procrastinators might have to tell their loved ones to "picture this under the tree," Niemira said.

Leaner inventories could end up pushing more shoppers than forecast into buying gift cards, he added.

Carolyn Beem, spokeswoman for L.L. Bean, said the catalog retailer was cautious with its inventory planning this year because of the recession.

"We did plan for a better year than last," she said. "Across the board, in all categories, inventory is holding up fairly well. However, there are pockets of items in each category that are or will be low."

It's easy to run into out-of-stocks online. And it's not just Texas Christian University's fan apparel that's in short supply with only eight shopping days remaining before Christmas.

J. Crew's tall black Templeton women's boots aren't shipping until late January in many sizes. At, Eileen Fisher leggings are no longer available in misses' sizes, and a pink Juicy Couture robe in size small isn't in stock. A women's St. John's Bay pea coat that started out in nine colors is down to one or two colors per size at J.C. Penney.

While that's frustrating for shoppers, it's good news for retailers. This Saturday is forecast to be the second-busiest shopping day of the year, following the day after Thanksgiving, according to ShopperTrak.

Even now, people will continue to wait because they've been conditioned to do that, said Alan Shor, president of the Retail Connection, a Dallas-based retail real estate firm. "Retailers are trying to stabilize their business during this season. Those that do it will be in good shape when the economy turns."

Today, consumers have become "surgical shoppers," said Steven Dennis, president of Sageberry Consulting LLC. "They are overwhelmingly focused on key items, needs vs. wants and seeking out the best deal."

So far, overall interim sales tallies are showing that consumers are spending slightly more than last year.

The ICSC-Goldman Sachs chain store index, which includes about 30 retailers, was up 2.4 percent last week from the same period a year ago. That was the 14th consecutive week that year-ago sales increased from 2008's dismal retailing season.

ComScore said online sales rose 4 percent last week to $4.64 billion.

Online sales since early November are up 14.7 percent from last year, but the dollar value of the average transaction is down 8.4 percent, according to Dallas-based Chase Paymentech's 2009 Holiday Pulse Index.

That's probably due to a combination of trends, including lower prices on most electronics, earlier promotional pricing and shoppers taking advantage of more frequent free-shipping offers, said Aaron Press, director of market analysis.

Free-shipping offers will also turn scarce after Friday.

"As we get closer to Christmas, if there is a 'must have' or 'really want,' the best advice is to order early to avoid disappointment," said L.L. Bean's Beem.

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