A surge of shopping just before and after Christmas helped retailers salvage the 2004 holiday season, but overall, merchants had an unimpressive performance as some struggled to...

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NEW YORK — A surge of shopping just before and after Christmas helped retailers salvage the 2004 holiday season, but overall, merchants had an unimpressive performance as some struggled to a disappointing finish.

It was hard to discern a trend yesterday as merchants reported December sales, the final assessment of the holiday season. Costco Wholesale, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, Bon-Macy’s parent Federated Department Stores, and upscale stores such as Neiman Marcus all surpassed Wall Street projections, but Sears, Gap and Pier 1 were among the disappointments.

Wal-Mart, which stepped up discounting after a slow start to the season, posted a decent but not outstanding 3 percent rise in same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year. That was a slightly higher than Wall Street’s forecast. The discounter’s results were particularly helped by post-holiday sales.

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Costco had a 9 percent increase in same-store sales, better than the 6.3 percent Wall Street expected. Federated had a 2.3 percent increase in same-store sales, better than the 1.1 percent forecast. Federated doesn’t release separate results for Bon-Macy’s.

“The Christmas season was just OK, clearly salvaged by the last-minute shoppers and steep discounting,” said Ken Perkins, an analyst at research form RetailMetrics. “Stores that have been struggling over the last couple of months appear to be continuing that trend. And for stores that have been doing well over the last several months, December was a good month.”

But the heavy discounting needed to bring consumers into stores came at the expense of profits, prompting retailers including Target and Pier 1 to cut fourth-quarter earnings projections, according to Todd Slater, a retail analyst at Lazard Freres.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS same-store sales tally of 77 retailers for December rose 2.7 percent, which was below the already reduced forecast of 3 percent to 3.5 percent.

That means same-store sales for the combined November-December period were up 2.3 percent, below the 2.5 percent to 3 percent forecast, according to Michael Niemira, chief economist at the association. November’s final same-store sales tally was up a slim 1.8 percent.

The holiday performance was weaker than the 4.0 percent gain posted in 2003, and in line with the holiday 2000 and 2001 seasons, which averaged a 2.3 percent gain.

Still, as Niemira noted, the holiday season “had a lot of things going on,” making it difficult to measure its success. The season was marked by the increasing popularity of gift cards, sales of which are not recorded until consumers redeem them, and the increasing popularity of online shopping, which is are not included in retailers’ same-store results.

Online sales for the November and December period rose a better-than-expected 29 percent to $15.8 billion, according to comScore Networks.

The unimpressive holiday performance raised questions about consumers’ ability to spend in 2005, as factors such as an uncertain job market and high fuel prices are not going away. Rising interest rates will also add to consumers’ expenses.

“Consumer spending moving forward has a weak tone,” said Anthony Chan, senior economist with J.P. Morgan Fleming Asset Management in Columbus, Ohio. “Stores will have to keep inventories lean and offer good value” to get consumers to spend this year.