Holiday retail sales in Massachusetts turned out to be even weaker than the modest gains that had been forecast for the year’s most important shopping season.
Sales in November and December climbed just 2 percent from the same period in 2012, well below the 3.5 percent jump expected by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, the trade group reported Tuesday.
“It’s a little disappointing,” said Jon Hurst, president of the state retail association. “The short calendar was a tough challenge, and the weather made it even worse.”
There was one less weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, holidays that bookend the strongest shopping season of the year. Hurst said a snowstorm on the second weekend of December further limited the amount of time shoppers spent in stores and hurt impulse buying, which account for a third of all department store purchases.
The Massachusetts sales results were released amid a flurry of other retail reports showing mixed results for the holiday season.
The National Retail Federation said total US holiday sales jumped 3.8 percent to $601.8 billion in November and December, up from a 3.5 percent increase recorded in the same two months of 2012.
Meanwhile, the US Commerce Department said retail sales, excluding money spent on autos, climbed 3.7 percent in December over the same month in 2012. But monthly department store sales fell 3.3 percent, compared with December of 2012.
Economist Chris Christopher, director of global and US consumer markets for IHS Global Insight, agreed with Hurst that one less weekend hurt retailers all over the country. But he also said many created their own problems by stocking too much inventory, which prompted sharp price cuts later.
“Holiday sales in traditional places weren’t very good,” said Christopher. “There was such heavy discounting that retailers got people to buy more but then took a hit on their [profit] margins.”
Demand was weak because risk-averse retailers offered too many of the same boring products as last year, said analyst Marshal Cohen of NPD Group, a market research firm in New York. Fifty-two percent of shoppers surveyed by NPD after the holiday season said they felt there had been no new and exciting gift options for sale.
“One out of two people that walked into a store said it was boring,” Cohen said. “That’s pretty scary.”
Cohen said the lack of new gadgets and goods failed to attract consumers, and retailers had to offer steep discounts to pull them in.
“Retailers end up in a catch-22,” he said. “If they don’t do something risk-worthy, they are going to bore the consumer to death and have to mark the product down. If they take a risk and consumers don’t buy, they have to mark down the product.”
The lack of new inventory hurt local sales because Massachusetts residents tend to be ahead of the shopping curve and eager to snatch up the latest innovative products, which were not as plentiful this year, Cohen said.
Hurst chooses to see the silver lining in a tepid cloud of local shopping. Holiday sales have climbed in Massachusetts for the last four consecutive years, he said.
“You have to be happy that you beat last year,” Hurst said. “But it’s not as big of an increase as last year, and we’re tracking below national levels once again.”