Shoppers gave a Christmas bonus to retailers of both pricey and discount goods in December, lavishing dollars on such items as jewels from Tiffany and basics from Wal-Mart.
December sales growth was the best in seven years, with a year-over-year gain of 6.6 percent in stores open at least a year, according to the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. Goldman Sachs, tallying sales from a different collection of merchants, reported a 6.1 percent December retail gain over the previous year.
''The overall picture is still strong,'' said Michael Niemira, of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. ''The pattern of spending suggests that there's momentum going forward.''
Higher-than-expected December sales before and after the holiday gave 1999 a retail ending almost as stellar as its sky-high beginning, in spite of a late-fall lull.
Tony sellers such as Nieman-Marcus and value sellers such as Costco Wholesale Corp. fared best. Sellers in between, meanwhile, suffered from the classic middle-child syndrome of being overlooked.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported a 9.1 percent gain, well above an expected 6 percent to 7 percent gain. The number is significant because as the biggest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart's better-than-expected showing was enough to raise the entire retail composite, Niemira said.
Bloomingdale's and Macy's parent, Federated Department Stores Inc., also soared above the department store sector as a whole, posting a 6.4 percent same-store sales gain, Tiffany & Co. jewelers reported a 27 percent domestic gain and Nieman-Marcus Group Inc. reported sales up 14.4 percent, in part on the strength of luxury accessories, including shawls, scarves and jewelry.
Same-store sales are considered a good measure of retail performance because the figure excludes new and closed stores.
Holiday 1999 laggards included some of the companies that most needed a boost. Several midlevel stores posted flat or falling sales in stores open at least a year, including JCPenney, where weakness in men's athletic clothes and juniors' apparel meant holiday sales just a fraction of a percent ahead of last year.
Dayton Hudson Corp.'s struggling Mervyn's California also fell harder than expected, as did Toys R Us Inc., which in 1998 lost its title of top toy seller to Wal-Mart. Analysts had expected a good season for the specialty toy chain, following a 13 percent sales gain in the third quarter.
In addition to a high-profile stumble in its online business, which failed to deliver some customers' Christmas gifts on time, the company suffered from weak supply of important video products, one analyst said.
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