RETAILERS: 2003 HOLIDAY SALES SEASON FINISHES STRONG

Retailers said they enjoyed a stronger holiday sales season in 2003 than they did the previous year, although some said shoppers waited until the last minute to do much of their buying.Supermarket operators contacted by SN said they were pleased with the level of sales during the busy November-December period."It was absolutely excellent," said Ron Pearson, chairman, Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa,

Retailers said they enjoyed a stronger holiday sales season in 2003 than they did the previous year, although some said shoppers waited until the last minute to do much of their buying.

Supermarket operators contacted by SN said they were pleased with the level of sales during the busy November-December period.

"It was absolutely excellent," said Ron Pearson, chairman, Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, who said comparable-store sales for the two weeks before Christmas were up 6%. "Consumer spending was very healthy. They were spending on gifts such as fruit baskets, hams, turkeys and things that have traditionally been gifts from a food store company. That was bigger this year than the past two years."

He also said there was a "huge" increase in prepared foods such as hams, turkeys and roasts.

At Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, sales were "strong and steady" throughout December, said Lori Willis, spokeswoman. "I don't think there were any unusual spikes or dips, just very steady sales going into the holiday."

Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., said in a conference call on the day after Christmas that sales surged as the holiday approached, although December same-store sales were still projected to come in "near the low end" of the 3%-to-5% range.

The company said holiday sales occurred "even later than in prior years." Wal-Mart's strongest categories in the United States were pharmacy, electronics, toys, girls' apparel, infant products, outerwear, paper goods and food. The Northeast and Midwest were the strongest regions in the week leading up to Christmas.

Target Corp., Minneapolis, also reported last week that shoppers went on late spending sprees, although the company said the last-minute push failed to make up for lost sales during the weekend snowstorms that had socked the Midwest and Northeast earlier in the month. The company said its December same-store sales at its Target-banner discount stores would meet the low end of previous projections of 4% to 6%.

Other reports indicated that retail holiday sales improved by about 5% to 6% over year-ago levels in much of the country.

"This has clearly been a much stronger holiday season than last year," said Tracy Mullin, president and chief executive officer, National Retail Federation, Washington, which projected a 5.7% increase in holiday sales.