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RETAILERS ARE RINGING IN THE SEASON WITH UP-TEMPO CASH-REGISTER BEAT

SHARE RETAILERS ARE RINGING IN THE SEASON WITH UP-TEMPO CASH-REGISTER BEAT

Many of the nation's retailers are as happy as a kid with a set of Power Rangers toys: Their Christmas season was robust and profitable. But clothing stores are feeling like Santa left them off his list.

Apparel merchants had a lot of warm weather and relatively few takers for winter clothes, while anyone selling home furnishings, electronics, toys and jewelry had a great holiday season.`It's really been a golden Christmas," said Clark Johnson, chairman of Pier 1 Imports Inc.

The day before Christmas was hectic, with consumers jamming stores and malls trying to get their last-minute shopping done. Clothing retailers were hoping the eleventh-hour crush would make the season for them.

The experience of Sears, Roebuck and Co. reflected trends across the industry. The company's electronics, computer and home furnishings business was strong all season. So were traditional gift areas such as jewelry, sweaters and men's casual clothes.

But while Sears fared better than many competitors in women's apparel, sales on that end of the business weren't as strong as in other merchandise lines and were "coming a little later," said John Costello, senior executive vice president for marketing.

Overall, "it's shaping up as a good Christmas," Costello said Saturday.

Women's apparel retailers had more than just the weather to contend with. They have been unable for more than a year to find a fashion look that really works.

Shoppers are "saying they're not real pleased with what's out there," said John Konarski, research director at the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group.

Moreover, women are buying fewer clothes, preferring to invest more in their homes and family.

"If you're doing apparel ... your increases are about what they were last year," Konarski said. But he noted that with inflation low, clothing retailers were at least holding their own.

Still, some apparel retailers did very well, like Talbot's, the career women's clothing chain.

Consumers were willing to spend - and splurge - this season, though they continued to look for good values and avoided buying what they didn't really need, particularly clothes.

At Carson Pirie Scott & Co., which owns 60 department stores, mostly in the Midwest, "we saw more multiple purchases," said Edward Carroll, executive vice president for marketing.

Midwestern retailers had more cooperation from the weather and generally had a good Christmas. Carroll said clothing sold well as soon as the temperature dropped and jewelry, cashmere sweaters and watches were big sellers all season long.

Johnson said his strongest business came from Michigan, where the reinvigorated auto industry boosted consumer confidence. He noted that California, which lagged behind the rest of the country in recovering from the recession, was regaining its strength.

Specialty stores saw the same spending patterns as department stores. Konarski's group, which tracked sales at smaller stores inside malls, found jewelry stores were by far the best performers, followed by home furnishings.

He said books were also a top seller, thanks to bookstores created by chain companies like Barnes & Noble.

Catalog retailers had a mixed season - again, reflecting overall retailing trends. Spiegel Inc., which runs the Spiegel catalog and the Eddie Bauer stores and catalog, warned earlier this month that fourth-quarter earnings would fall below expectations because of the unseasonably warm weather.

But at Williams-Sonoma Inc., the upscale kitchen catalog, the warehouse was so inundated by orders that it was unable to keep its promise of delivery by Christmas for last-minute callers. Spokesman Pat Connolly said the company waived shipping charges for disappointed shoppers.

The hottest toy this season were the Power Rangers. Stores couldn't get enough of them.

Among electronics items, 18-inch home satellite dishes, selling for $700, and big-screen TVs sold well. So did personal computers.

Retailers reported big sales of items not traditionally associated with Christmas. Sears sold a lot of tires and car batteries, and Lowes Cos., a home center chain, had great turnover in wallpaper, lamps, carpeting and paint. Consumers were either having a lot of company, or getting ready for Christmas visits.