Normal as It Can Get

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Though life is far from normal these days, it's nice to put aside many of the problems out there during this holiday season.

That may be hard for some catalogers and retailers who are seeing their stress levels rise because of dismal sales last month. Gap Inc. posted a 25 percent year-to-date sales decline, and Abercrombie & Fitch was down 5 percent for November. JC Penney, which was showing signs of a turnaround in recent months, failed to reach management's target of at least 1 percent growth. Discount stores didn't fare much better, with Wal-Mart posting a 4.3 percent sales growth.

Most retailers have been forced to cut prices earlier than usual or entice shoppers with coupons of 20 percent to 40 percent off. Catalogers and e-tailers also are discounting items and offering free shipping, something we didn't see last year. Several companies with large inventories of coats, scarves and sweaters had to deal with an uncooperative Mother Nature while warm temperatures in the Northeast and mountain states kept many shoppers thinking about other things, though The Territory Ahead said it didn't see any drop in sales.

"We're seeing improvement over last year on our average order amount, and we're getting a response rate that's comparable to last year," said Mark Gallo, senior vice president of marketing.

With vivid images of Sept. 11 still on the minds of many Americans, this year's gifts are more about meaning than Tickle Me Elmos or Furbys. Patriotism is a big draw, especially here in New York City. The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is aglow with red, white and blue lights, and store windows have taken on a USA theme. Hallmark Cards reported last week that the five best-selling holiday cards on its Web site have patriotic themes.

More signs that normal life is returning are results from two new polls. An ABC News/Money magazine poll found consumer confidence is growing and people think now is a "good time to buy things," while a poll by Quinnipiac University ranked New York City as the U.S. city Americans would like to visit most. The poll also found that 61 percent said they have a "better" impression of New Yorkers since Sept. 11.

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