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Posted: 4:23 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011

Retailers keep stock tight going into holiday season  

By Arielle Kass

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By now, retailers have ordered most of the products shoppers will see on store shelves when they begin looking for Christmas sales.

But with expectations that holiday sales will be lower than originally projected, many retailers are looking to get goods in later and are limiting their stock, so as not to get stuck with unsold goods in January.

"Retailers generally are guarded and restrained as it relates to the holiday consumer demand," Robert W. Baird transportation analyst Ben Hartford said. "They're minimizing their levels of inventory."

From late summer to mid-fall, gifts like toys that have a long shelf life and are worth less than pricey electronics travel by ocean freight on their way to stores. As Christmas gets closer, products manufactured overseas like electronics move by plane.

The uncertain economy means retailers are weighing the increased cost of air freight if demand picks up later against the cost of holding on to items in warehouses. They are debating just how much they need on hand, and when.

So far, Hartford said, they're erring on the side of keeping stock low.

During good times, there would be a fall spike in shipments, he said, but so far "there's a lack of a discernible peak season. Retailers only want to carry as much inventory as they'll sell."

The peak season for ocean freight begins in mid-August and goes until early November. The season so far is weak, Hartford said, but could wind up being compressed into a smaller peak later.

"We're certainly not seeing the same volume we were seeing a year ago," Dahlman Rose & Co. director Helane Becker said.

That could benefit shippers like Sandy Springs-based UPS, which Hartford said would stand to see air freight business pick up if early shopping indicates people are more willing to buy than has been forecast.

The International Council of Shopping Centers said Wednesday that holiday shopping center sales will rise by 2.2 percent, after increasing by 5 percent last year. They declined in 2008 and 2009.

UPS CEO Scott Davis said he might not know until December how great the demand will be.

"It could be good for us if companies have to ship things quickly," he said. "We'll start really seeing the answer the last two weeks before Christmas."

Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz said the retail season was dictated months ago, and that while retailers may be able to move inventory around the country by air late in the season, it is unlikely they will be able to get products from other countries if they did not already order them. The exception is higher-priced electronics, which traditionally travel by air.

Foltz said he expects a 3 percent to 5 percent increase in traffic at the port of Savannah, but that it is due to Savannah taking business from other ports.

Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation, said retailers are not using their warehousing facilities like they used to. They don't want the cost of holding on to toys or games, he said, and would prefer to receive products just in time to get them into shoppers' hands.

Still, he said port volumes are beginning to pick up. He called air freight a "last resort" for some products.

Hartford, the Robert W. Baird analyst, said increased shopper demand in 2009 led to a "strong pop" in air freight that year. But he said retailers are in a better position now than they were then and in 2008, when they were stuck with too many unsold items after the holiday season was over.