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December retail sales offer glimmer of hope for nation's merchants

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Retialers face tough months ahead as consumers are faced with high unemployment and tight credit

By The Staff

NEW YORK (AP) — Last-minute holiday shoppers brought relief to the nation's retailers, handing them modest sales gains for the holiday season and prompting several to raise their fourth-quarter profit outlooks.

The improved profit picture comes because retailers never had to resort to drastic price-cutting after keeping inventories lean.

Still, retailers are facing tough months ahead as consumer spending is expected to remain weak amid high unemployment and tight credit.

"The holiday season was decent but nothing you can get excited about. And it was saved by a last-minute surge," said Ken Perkins, president of research firm RetailMetrics. "Santa didnt' deliver coal, but he certainly didn't deliver caviar."

As merchants reported results Thursday, warehouse club operator Costco Wholesale Corp., The Buckle and Children's Place Retail Stores Inc. reported increases.

Even Sears Holdings Corp., which operates Kmart and Sears, Roebuck and Co., eked out a small gain and offered fourth-quarter guidance that's sharply above Wall Street estimates. Macy's Inc. and Limited Brands are among retailers raising profit outlooks.

Stragglers included jewelry chain Zale Corp., which reported a sharp sales decline but it said it maintained discipline in discounting.


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