Originally created 02/08/98

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While many consumers are paying off their bills from Christmas, area retail-store managers are reporting that they had increased sales and profits.

"It was a good year for us," Kmart operations manager Bill Long said. "It started off slow, but picked up."

As with many area retailers stores, managers of the Kmart on Gordon Highway would not release specific figures, but said the store increased year-end sales over last year and expects a strong year.

Retailers across the country reported a successful holiday season, according to an American Express survey of 500 consumers and 250 retailers conducted during the last week of December.

One out of every five retailers surveyed said sales were up as much as 5 percent over the same figures for 1996. Shoppers in the South spent $1,034 on holiday expenditures, the survey said. And many consumers reported spending more per person on gifts.

But the American Express survey may also be indicating a trend that could have serious consequences to retailers if it continues and stores don't adjust, some retail experts say.

Shoppers aren't buying their presents during the four-to-five week-before-Christmas season. They're shopping all year for gifts, the survey said.

Many consumers began buying Christmas gifts early in 1997. And 56 percent of the retailers surveyed said they planned for an early shopping season in 1997.

"I think folks start shopping a lot earlier than in the past," said John Veal, the manager of Wal-Mart in Martinez.

Last year, many retailers began decorating their stores for Christmas in October and malls were filled with shoppers by the first of November, Mr. Veal said. The early purchases stretched out the buying season and forced retailers to prepare in advance.

Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report in Scotch Plains, N.J., said he believes that the consumer trend toward year-round Christmas shopping and early bargain-hunting will change retail sales "in a very serious way."

Mr. Barnard argues that the early purchases hurt retail sales during the holiday season. Companies are reporting increased profits, he said, because they have managed to cut costs. In his opinion, retailers had a "humdrum" year.

Jeff Pitzing, the manager of Belk department store in the Aiken Mall, characterized sales in 1997 as "pretty good." They were about 5 percent better than last year, he said.

"It's not anything to stand up and scream about," he said."But we're not having losses."

Other trends during the 1997 holiday season included increased purchases of items for the home, electronics and clothes, store managers say.

Decorative pillows, lamps, candles and other items were popular, J.B. White spokeswoman Marion White said. People tend to be doing more entertaining at home and that may be what is driving sales of decorative items, she added.

J.B. White, which plans to open a new, 160,000 square-foot store in the Augusta Mall on March 11, is expecting even stronger sales in 1998, Ms. White said.

Bed Bath & Beyond, a new store at the Augusta Exchange that specializes in home furnishings, is banking on the home decorating trend. The New Jersey-based company added 33 stores last year and plans to open 40 more this year.

The Augusta Exchange store opened in October, in time for the holiday rush.

"We did well," manager Steve Riley said. "But it's tough to judge with only one year."


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