Even amid holiday sales, shoppers couldn't always get the popular gifts they wanted as stores ran short of items such as Elmos, Wiis and $1,000 HDTVs.
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As the first retail results for the critical season start pouring in, things aren't looking good, and analysts are busily ratcheting down their earlier, more optimistic sales forecasts.
Visa USA lowered its growth figures for the season to 6.5% from 7.5% for retail sales in November and December. "The housing slowdown is having more of a pronounced effect," said Wayne Best, senior VP-business and economic analyst at Visa. "We've used our houses as an ATM machine over the last few years, but housing prices have been declining over the last four months and consumers were more cautious."
Visa's data include grocery stores, restaurants and gasoline sales. The credit-card company culled its predictions from its credit, debit and prepaid cards, which it says represent $17 of every $100 spent annually.
Shoppers buying less
Mr. Best said despite heavy foot traffic, packed malls and parking lots at discounters and low unemployment, the prospect of continued declines in housing prices kept consumers from spending big. "There were a lot of people in the stores, but they were buying less," he said.
MasterCard's SpendingPulse survey dubbed the season "soft," pegging growth rates for retail sales at 6.6%, compared with growth of 8.7% last season. But when adjusted to include the additional holiday shopping day this year, the growth rate comes in at 3%, compared with 5.2% last year.
MasterCard pointed to electronics and high-end luxury retailers as the potential winners of the season, with apparel retailers hurt by slumping sales.
Shortage of hot products
Britt Beemer, a retail analyst with America's Research Group, blamed the season's poor showing on spotty supply of the season's most coveted toys and electronics. "There weren't enough Elmos, Wiis and $1,000 HDTVs out there," said Mr. Beemer. "The three things that could have been hot just ended up frustrating consumers."
For example, in a survey one week before Christmas of parents who planned to buy the TMX Elmo doll, 55% gave up when they couldn't find it. And a survey of retail-store managers the day after Black Friday showed demand for HDTVs was not met, since the managers said they could have sold 10 times more sets.
"We had a situation where consumers were driven into a frenzy to buy something, but the suppliers were so limited," Mr. Beemer said. In early December, the research firm lowered its retail sales forecast to 2.7% from an estimate of a 3.1% gain above last year, blaming the lack of "must-have" items.
Top shopping days
Black Friday retained its status as the biggest shopping day of the year, though, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago retail-research firm that combines store traffic data with U.S. Commerce Department figures.
Sales came in at $8.96 billion for the day after Thanksgiving. The next most shopped day was Dec. 23, when sales came in at $8.72 billion.