Everything must go ... now

Image: Shopping sign
Encouragement or wishful thinking at a Chicago Old Navy? Retailers may be willing to experiment this year to get people into stores.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
/ Source: Business Week

This holiday season is shaping up to be the battle of the better deal — and it's a bloody battle indeed.

For months, retailers have been throwing themselves at consumers with promotions, yet October results show such efforts aren't yielding much, with same-store sales coming out negative across retail sectors. Less than three weeks away from Black Friday — the biggest U.S. shopping day of the year — retailers are bracing themselves for what promises to be the weakest holiday season in decades.

It's a fear that's turning what once were high-end department stores into outlet-style versions of themselves and mass-market retailers into dollar stores. At Saks Fifth Avenue, where same-store sales plummeted 16.6 percent last month, a $1,030 pair of Christian Louboutin boots can be purchased for $618. At Old Navy, where sales at stores open more than a year were down 20 percent last month, winter gloves and scarves were $1 apiece last weekend.

"I have never seen any environment like this," says retail analyst Jennifer Black, who has followed the industry for nearly 30 years. "The fight is on ... They are all scared."

Department stores were hardest hit last month, with an average 12.8 percent decline in same-store sales. As a result, retailers like J.C. Penney and Nordstrom are doing anything they can to one-up their competitors for consumers' attention. And they have no shame.

At Penney's, where same-store sales fell 13 percent, "The Biggest Sale of Them All" has items marked as much as 60 percent off. At Neiman Marcus, where same-store sales plunged nearly 27 percent last month, a promotion called "First Call Sale" has new items that typically don't go on sale right away marked down as much as 40 percent the moment they hit shelves.

Nordstrom, where same-store sales were down 15.7 percent this October, is using its price-matching strategy to compete with others vying for shoppers — following suit on sales at Saks and Neiman by honoring their discounted prices. And while Nordstrom typically offers double-rewards points for five-day periods during sales, this year the double-points perk that gets customers a $20 coupon for spending $500 is lasting 69 days, until yearend. The hope is that customers will amass points and return for more.

Seattle-based Nordstrom is also relying heavily on its regular customers to mitigate weak sales next month, looking to perks like a free concierge that can pick out, wrap, and ship gifts for free to entice consumers. "It's not new, but now it's more important than ever," says Nordstrom spokeswoman Brooke White. "If we can take care of one customer and they tell a friend … that's in large part more valuable than throwing money to marketing activities."

But what is new this holiday season is the spontaneity with which so many retailers are reacting to weak sales. "Historically retailers plan out promotions and advertising a year in advance," says Craig Rowley, head of the retail sector for Hay Group, a Philadelphia management consultancy. "This year more than most years … you are going to see retailers trying things."

According to Rowley, one apparel retailer he declined to identify put cashmere sweaters in its windows on a recent Wednesday, then sent a mass e-mail to store managers only two days later instructing them to yank the sweaters from displays since they weren't selling as well as planned. "They will be trying everything they can," says Rowley.

That includes reprising Great Depression sales strategies dormant for decades at most retailers. Case in point: layaway. Kmart has long had a layaway option that allows customers to leave items behind the counter while paying for them over time in installments. But this season the big-box retailer is featuring the service prominently in ads, in the hopes that layaway — also offered at a handful of other retailers including T.J. Maxx and its Marshalls unit, and Burlington Coat Factory — can help rack up sales.

Specialty apparel retailers, hardest hit after department stores, are also floundering for attention and blasting consumers with new short-term deals nearly every day. American Eagle Outfitters, where sales dropped 12 percent this October from last, is offering a buy-one-get-one-half-off sale.

The Talbots, long offering sales only four times a year, has introduced regular markdowns at its stores after same-store sales were down 13.9 percent last month. On Nov. 6, when Victoria's Secret Stores reported a 10 percent drop in October same-store sales, the retailer ran a promotion for 25 percent off any item.

Across the board, as retailers try to buttress their balance sheets this winter, they'll look beyond discounting toward cutting costs. Among the moves, stores are scaling back on seasonal hiring and will strive to staff stores based on how well each location's sales fare.

"It's a week-by-week decision they are going to make based on the sales trends," says Daniel Butler, head of retail operations at the National Retail Federation. "When the economy gets tough, retailers look at getting creative about what they can do to make sales happen."