Study: Customer experience improves across channels during holidays.

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In what could be termed a gift for customers, major retailers generally improved how they engaged and served consumers in different channels during the 2015 holiday season.

According to the new “Omnichannel Retail Index – Holiday Findings,” from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and consulting firm FitForCommerce, the availability of several specific online and seamless customer service offerings improved between summer and holiday season 2015. For example, 19% of 120 online and omnichannel retailers studied provided the ability to refine search results on a category landing page, up from 13%.

While adoption remained relatively low, retailers continued to focus efforts on in-store pickup of online purchases during the holidays, up to 28% from 23%. And the percentage of retailers allowing online lookup of store availability rose to 44% from 42%.

Mobile holiday performance also generally improved. Eighty-six percent of retailers provided a shared cart for mobile and desktop purchases, up from 84%. The percentage of retailers offering mobile-optimized email rose much more sharply to 77% from 55%.

However, the number of retailers offering live chat on product detail pages fell to 27% from 35%, possibly due to the challenge of catering to large numbers of online holiday shoppers. Other omnichannel capabilities that decreased during the holidays compared to the summer included free return shipping (44% from 49%) and interactive in-store displays and kiosks (39% from 51%).

Other notable findings include:

· The percentage of retailers offering loyalty programs rose to 52% from 40%.

· The number of retailers allowing in-store returns of online purchases increased to 68% from 57%.

· Eighty-nine percent of retailers cross-sold or recommended items on product detail pages, up from 72%.

· Customers could create an e-wallet at 73% of retailers, compared to 66% in the summer.

· Associates offered to look for out-of-stock items online or in another store at 69% of retailers, up from 39%.

In December 2015, FitForCommerce conducted the Omnichannel Retail Index Holiday Study to assess how major U.S. retailers are performing online, in stores and on mobile devices. Omnichannel experts mystery shopped and evaluated 120 well-known retailers across 20 verticals, of which 100 have bricks-and-mortar locations.

CVS y Más… the new Hispanic pharmacy format.

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The retailer first debuted the concept, designed to provide enhanced, personalized service to the local Hispanic community, in June 2015, in Miami, opening 12 stores. Nine  stores in the greater Los Angeles market will have the new format.
“Bringing CVS Pharmacy y más to Los Angeles was a natural next step as part of our goal to better meet the unique needs of our local Hispanic customers,” said Hank Casillas, Area Vice President of CVS Pharmacy. “CVS Pharmacy y más stores are designed to become a one-stop shop for local Hispanic residents to conveniently receive best-in-class pharmacy services, as well as customized products and services, in an environment that feels like home.”
CVS pharmacy y más includes fully bilingual associates and signage throughout the store. Other unique features include:
  • Expanded Services: Bill payments, domestic and international wireless recharge, money transfers, and lottery.
  • New Products: More than 1,500 new products throughout the store, including many of the most popular Hispanic brands in categories like groceries, over-the-counter medications, household cleaners, snacks, appliances, cookware, cosmetics, baby, and hair care.
  • Enhanced Value: New lower Prices on hundreds of products throughout the store and more value-sized products. Competitive pricing and more value-size packs on hundreds of products.
CVS pharmacy y más stores in Los Angeles  will open through August and include South El Monte, Bell, Walnut Park, Santa Ana, Los Angeles, South Gate, Pico Rivera, Lynwood and Norwalk.

Whose Brand Are You Building? Retail-Branded Product Protection Enhances the Retail Brand

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The explosive growth of connected devices combined with consumer preference for retailer-brand protection plans creates a growing opportunity for retailers to boost revenue and shopper loyalty.

As connected devices become more prominent in every part of our lives, a shopper’s need for product protection also increases. Traditionally many in the retail industry have treated extended warranties and other product protection services as just add-on opportunities for revenue at the point of sale. However, protection plans are more than just an impulse buy for many shoppers. Many consumers are very savvy about their protection plan purchases—and they have opinions that retailers need to understand.

At Asurion, we are focused on driving shopper loyalty to the retailer by providing protection services that surprise and delight the shopper after the initial sale. So we wanted to fully understand how and why shoppers chose their product protection plans, to help exceed their expectations. Our research looked at important factors that shoppers used to decide where to purchase their consumer electronics, and to gain insight into their preferences between retailer-branded protection programs versus third-party programs.

Retailers may find the results surprising:

Shoppers prefer retailer-branded protection plans about six times more than third-party branded plans.

Additionally, the higher the cost of the product the shopper planned to purchase, the greater their preference for a retailer-branded protection plan. This preference is driven by a strong sense of trust towards retailer-branded protection plans and convenience since the shopper is already using the retailer for other services.

The right protection plan can also help build shopper loyalty and repeat purchases. Shoppers filed a claim with a branded Asurion plan intend to spend 20% more with the retailer that sold them the Asurion-backed plan, whereas shoppers who filed a claim through a third-party protection provider plan to spend 23% less with the retailer where they purchased the third-party plan, according to another Asurion study. Additionally, shoppers who have a product serviced through an Asurion-backed retailer-branded protection plan report greater loyalty and affinity to the retailer, as reflected in a 41% lift in customer satisfaction (CSAT), and twice the likelihood that they will recommend the retailer’s products and services to others.

Suddenly, that “add-on” purchase takes on a much greater importance—for the shopper and the retailer.

Retailers can take advantage of all these opportunities to increase shopper satisfaction and loyalty in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace. Ask yourself:

  • Do our product protection plans support our brand?
  • Does my customer’s interaction with product protection give them a positive experience and grow their trust with our brand?
  • Once we’re competitive on price, are we doing all we can with supporting services to make the sale?

Click here to learn how branded protection plans can improve your profits.

Whole Foods and Instacart take relationship to new level.

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Whole Foods Market and online delivery service Instacart have big plans to make it easier for consumers nationwide to receive home deliveries from the nation’s leading retailer of natural and organic products.

The two companies will launch in several new markets in the coming year, building on the 17 existing metros where consumers can use Instacart to order deliveries from Whole Foods stores. Interestingly, the companies also said they are looking ahead to create new e-commerce and delivery solutions, with the first pilots launching in 2016. No other details on the development of new technology were provided.

In addition, the strengthened partnership will increase the number of Whole Foods Market stores with embedded Instacart shoppers by up to 50% nationwide by the end of 2016.

The new partnership means Instacart will be Whole Foods Market’s largest partner for online ordering and delivery.

“We’ve seen how much our customers love this fast and convenient way to receive Whole Foods Market groceries right to their door, so we are excited to extend our relationship with Instacart,” said Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market. “Working together, we will continue to find even more ways to create outstanding shopping experiences – whether they’re happening in the digital space or within the four walls of our stores.”

Whole Foods has previously reported that Instacart sales comprise a mid-to-high-single-digit percentage of sales in the cities where it currently partners with the delivery provider. These cities include Atlanta; Austin; Boulder; Boston; Chicago; Denver; Houston; Los Angeles; New York City; Philadelphia; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; San Jose; Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Whole Foods would presumably obtain tighter control over what is becoming an increasingly large in-store sales driver with this partnership, while Instacart obtains financing and long-term stability with a major client.

It is possible other Instacart retail partners may have issues with a competitor financially benefiting from their online deliveries. Also there could be concerns about Whole Foods having access to competitive information.

However, as with UPS’ recent investment into online delivery provider Deliv, this agreement shows that online delivery is becoming a more established omnichannel retail niche with growing profit potential. Look for other partnerships between online delivery providers and various retail, logistics and technology partners in the months ahead.

“Instacart has always prided itself on being a retailer’s best friend, and our extended partnership with Whole Foods Market is a testament to how brick and mortar retailers can successfully adapt to the growing demand for ecommerce and on-demand delivery services,” said Apoorva Mehta, CEO of Instacart. “Instacart and Whole Foods Market share a mutual commitment to providing our customers with the easiest and most seamless grocery shopping experience possible. We look forward to continuing to innovate with Whole Foods Market in the services that we can bring to users.”

Walmart supports omnichannel commerce with product content.

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Seamlessly selling products through Walmart just got a little easier.

Using the ContentSpec 2.0 interface from product content management platform provider Salsify, Walmart suppliers can now publish product content directly to Walmart’s systems. Rather than utilizing a spreadsheet-based process which could take weeks, Walmart suppliers can transmit digital content in as little as minutes.

This content can include digital photos, product descriptions and other information that not only helps Walmart better track products but can also assist shoppers in making purchase decisions. Digital product content can be served to customers online, via mobile devices and also in stores. The ease of digitally updating the content helps ensure it is accurate and timely as possible.

“Digital product content impacts not only online commerce but also the mobile and in-store experience, so providing consumers with clear and compelling product information is important for the entire buyer’s journey,” said Rob Gonzalez, co-founder and VP of business development at Salsify. “We worked closely with Walmart to beta test the API and are now one of the first companies to publish our customer’s content directly to Walmart, getting their best content to Walmart in minutes instead of weeks.”

Co-developing this new product content management capability is part of Walmart’s larger $1 billion e-commerce effort for 2016. Having easily accessible, accurate product information available on both the back and front end is an important supporting factor in successful seamless commerce.

JCPenney targets millennials with new private brand.

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One of the major components of JCPenney’s transformation strategy is getting a boost this week when the retailer launches its new Belle + Sky collection aimed at millennials.

According to JCPenney, Belle + Sky was created with the millennial woman in mind. The collection was piloted in select stores and on jcp.com last fall and will soon be available in 500 stores starting Feb. 12. Additionally, the company says it will begin introducing a center core layout in over one-third of JCPenney stores this spring. This new layout will transform the areas of fashion jewelry, accessories, footwear and handbags into a vibrant shopping environment that complements Sephora inside JCPenney and the Fine Jewelry Store, the retailer says.

“Belle + Sky is going to resonate with a diverse group of women in their 20s and 30s who are style conscious, digitally connected and are quick to emulate their outfits based on what they`re seeing on various social media channels,” said Siiri Dougherty, senior vice president of women`s apparel at JCPenney. “Millennials spend approximately $600 billion a year*, and therefore we know that she`s willing to invest in brands that reflect who she is and how she lives. With its trendy designs, lifestyle versatility and great value, we believe Belle + Sky will capture her attention and win her loyalty.”

These strategic initiatives reinforce the company`s focus on creating some of the industry`s leading private brands and giving customers more reasons to shop JCPenney.

JCPenney also says it plans to engage this digitally connected shopper by using an omnichannel approach to marketing Belle + Sky. The company will leverage popular social media channels and offer the new generation of millennial women meaningful wardrobe solutions that reflect her personality and busy lifestyle. This includes partnering with popular bloggers and fashion influencers to help showcase the style and versatility of the Belle + Sky brand.

Belle + Sky is the company`s first contemporary private brand infused with new designs throughout the season, giving shoppers faster access to runway-inspired looks. It complements an existing assortment of exclusive modern brands including nicole by Nicole Miller® and Bisou Bisou®.

Last year, a new center core environment was piloted in select JCPenney stores to promote greater cross shopping between fashion and fine jewelry, shoes, handbags and beauty. Given the pilot`s success, the company is bringing this new presentation to select stores starting in April.

“As we continue to expand our center core concept to more stores, customers will discover compelling displays that bring accessories to life in a meaningful and dynamic way,” said Jodie Johnson, senior vice president of footwear and handbags at JCPenney. Each piece in our collection of brands has been thoughtfully curated and displayed to ensure that she can discover various ways to update her wardrobe and take her style to the next level.”

The company currently operates approximately 1,020 stores and jcpenney.com.

How brick and mortar retailers can build shopper loyalty

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Retailers understand that loyal customers are the most profitable shoppers. While these consumers make buying decisions that are increasingly influenced by online channels, the vast majority of retail business in the United States is conducted in the physical store, and this isn’t changing with the Millennial generation.

In fact, a study from TimeTrade showed 92 percent of responding Millennials planned to shop in-store in 2015 as often or more than they did in 2014. Brick and mortar stores remain critical in a retailer’s ability to engage customers and build loyalty in a consistent and personalized way.

The importance of brick and mortar in no way diminishes the significance of a connected experience. In fact, with the always-connected consumer, retailers must seek opportunities to converge digital and physical experiences for consumers. The average American spends nearly three hours on their mobile device each day according to the latest figures from eMarketer, and consumers tend to reward businesses that provide Wi-Fi access with increased loyalty. Seventy to eighty percent of shoppers enter a store or mall with their Wi-Fi turned on, and sales on mobile devices has grown by more than 50 percent annually over the last two years. This presents enormous opportunity for retailers who combine in-store and mobile experiences.

Wi-Fi is the essential on ramp to this new digital retail experience. The quality of the on-site interactions—from social media to hyper-relevant content delivery—is built upon the quality of this network. Yet, to truly take advantage of opportunities in today’s digitally-focused world merely offering fast Wi-Fi isn’t enough. The wireless infrastructure should also be more than a means to push out coupons and alerts to mobile devices. It can be a differentiator for the retailer who creates relevant and personalized experiences that provide returning customers with the information they want when they want it. Wi-Fi is a strategic asset.

Real-Time Data on Customer Preferences
We know Wi-Fi is a must-have demand for customers and therefore a business necessity for retailers. Customers want easy connection to fast, uninterrupted Wi-Fi access – but more than that, Wi-Fi serves as an opportunity for retailers to better understand their customers. Wi-Fi can unlock information retailers can use to deliver a more relevant in-store service.

Retailers can utilize an advanced wireless infrastructure to detect the Wi-Fi connected device of a customer coming into the physical location. That detection can be as simple as presence analytics (detecting presence in the store) or, through a loyalty application, can provide the retailer with purchase history and preferences of that customer. When does a shopper make purchases, and what do they typically buy? Based on this information, retailers can adjust how they interact with a first-time visitor vs. a frequent shopper.

If retailers encourage shoppers to access Wi-Fi through a captive portal using social media log-ins, they also gain access to aggregated and anonymous demographic data. These insights can help the store better understand and serve customers.

Keep Customers Connected and Engaged on the Retail Floor
When considering a wireless network that acts as the basis for mobile engagement, retailers should ensure that the Wi-Fi is capable of handling multiple devices at speeds that customers demand. Customers want unfettered access for the best possible connection; a poor connection is worse than no connection.

For a network to deliver bottleneck-free speeds, support the high density retail environment and power real-time analytics, retailers should become familiar with the latest in wireless standards and determine when they need to make an upgrade to faster speeds, such as those delivered by 802.11ac Wave 2.

The density of a store’s Wi-Fi infrastructure is crucial to unlock shopper information. With the large number of anticipated mobile devices walking through the door, particularly on high traffic days, high density setups ensure great performance for every device. In addition, high density provides improved location accuracy. With an optimized deployment, accurate location-based technology can pinpoint a customer’s location on the retail floor to as close as one meter. This allows in-store engagement to be highly context-aware. Offers and communications can be based on location on the retailer floor to the sub-aisle level, avoiding blanket discounts that could drain profitability and diminish relevance. However, this requires a density of wireless access points that is carefully mapped to the retail design and floor plan for best results. Consulting a professional to determine best placement of the access points will also aid in location services accuracy.

Securing Your Customer Data and Future Trust in Your Brand
Security and privacy are key concerns for retail customers. Data and privacy breaches can be impediments to greater adoption of in-store mobile and location-based services. Security must be handled with transparency and customer acceptance. Customers will opt in for service if they believe the value they receive in return is worth the level of privacy they surrender. And they need to know that information will be handled securely. Making clear to customers how their information is being analyzed is just as important as gathering it. Give customers the option to “opt in” to these personal experiences and make clear that personal data is generally handled in aggregation and never stored.

Even if customers elect to not opt in, there is still analytic value that can be extracted from customer visits. Use a location-based service that allows mobile device signals to be detected anonymously. These aggregated insights can still provide key data about how customers behave in the store. And, through social media log-ins and a captive portal, the store can even receive summary demographic information without violating privacy concerns.

The bottom line is wireless infrastructures are the first and most critical step for retailers who want to invest in the physical and online experiences of their customers. A well-rounded strategy includes Wi-Fi infrastructure that can power location technology, provide the best speed and bandwidth capabilities to serve customers and deliver real-time data, and capture essential presence and location analytics data. By merging in-store experiences with connected ones, retailers will convert browsers into loyal buyers, drive more purchases, and improve overall business performance.

Acquisition creates first national bedding chain.

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On Friday, Mattress Firm completed its $780 million acquisition of rival Sleepy’s. The combined company will have annual sales of over $3.6 billion through approximately 3,500 retail locations in 48 states.

“We are excited about the opportunities our combined company will offer our customers, employees, business partners, vendors and shareholders, as the first truly border-to-border and coast-to-coast, multi-brand mattress specialty retailer,” stated Steve Stagner, Mattress Firm’s CEO.

Effective immediately, Adam Blank, previously Sleepy’s COO and general counsel, will become president of Sleepy’s. In his expanded Blank will report directly to Stagner and support the continued growth of Sleepy’s, as well as the evaluation and integration of best practices across the combined company.

Houston-based Mattress Firm in the nation’s largest mattress specialty chain, with 2,400 stores. Sleepy’s, based in Hicksville, New York, is the second largest, with 1,050 stores in 17 states, mostly in the Northeast.

Mattress Firm said it expects to generate annual synergies of approximately $40 million by fiscal 2018.

J.C. Penney overcomes warm weather with omnichannel.

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Less than 12 hours after Macy’s shared bleak holiday results, J.C. Penney said enhanced digital capabilities helped it to produce strong holiday season same store sales growth which allowed the company to reaffirm its full year profit forecast.

J.C. Penney said same store sales for November and December increased 3.9% on top of a prior year increase of 3.7% and confirmed that it would achieve earlier financial targets of $645 million in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) and generate positive free cash flow. Barring a major fall off in January sales, the 3.9% increase through November and December has J.C. Penney well positioned to achieve its full year outlook which called for same store sales growth of 4% to 5%, considering comps during the first, second and third quarters increased 3.4%, 4.1% and 6.4%, respectively.

“Despite unprecedented warm weather that significantly affected apparel sales across the company, our focus on private brands, enhanced omnichannel execution and compelling gift giving selection resulted in strong holiday sales,” said J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison. “I am especially pleased with the accelerated comp sales improvement from November to December, including record online sales for the company during the holiday season.”

J.C. Penney’s affirmation that it will achieve performance targets shared early in the year is not remarkable on the surface. However, the results take on greater significance when viewed against a backdrop in which record warm temperatures throughout the holiday season cast considerable doubt about other retailers’ ability to achieve sales targets. Also making J.C. Penney’s performance noteworthy is that it comes on the heels of hugely disappointing news from Macy’s. The day before J.C. Penney’s announcement on Jan. 7, Macy’s said its November and December same store sales declined 4.7%, worse than earlier guidance which called for a decline of 2% to 3%, and lowered its full year profit forecast.

J.C. Penney can breathe a sigh of relief that it appears to have weathered the holiday season better than others, but Ellison noted the company’s transformation remains a work in progress as it looks to build on omnichannel progress evident during the holidays.

“Although we have much work to do, our strengthened omnichannel capabilities enabled our supply chain network to process millions of jcp.com orders this season, supported by 250 stores across the country that helped fulfill online orders using in-store inventory,” Ellison said. “With this level of selection, we saw more online customers take advantage of our in-store pick up option available at over 1,000 JCPenney stores nationwide. We look forward to capitalizing on this digital progress through 2016.”

The company will report its fourth quarter and fiscal 2015 results on Feb. 26.

Holiday scorecard: winners, losers and those in between

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In what was arguably one of the strangest holiday season in recent memory – for a variety of reasons – retailers have reported a variety of results ranging from impressive to outright awful.

A strange mix of crosscurrents made the recently ended holiday season made for one of the most unusual and challenging selling environments in recent memory. Exceptionally low gas prices had a muted impact as did a job market that was seemingly improved but characterized by a lack of wage growth. While retailers were coping with factors affecting consumers ability to spend, they were also dealing with the an always intensely competitive time of year made even more so by the forces of e-commerce coupled with increased expense pressures associated with executing complex omnichannel sales and fulfillment strategies.

The first week of the New Year saw a wide range of companies disclose what proved to be a real mixed bag of results for the holiday season. A handful of others reported third quarter results that included the early part of the season. Here’s a look at how they fared in no particular order:

Macy’s: Yikes! November and December same store sales at Macy’s declined 4.7%, much worse than what was already disappointing guidance that called for a 2% to 3% decline. The weak topline prompted the company to lower its profit outlook, disclose the locations of 40 previously announced store closures and lay off thousands in stores and at headquarters. One bright spot was online, where the company said it achieved 25% growth and filled nearly 17 million orders. Chairman and CEO Terry Lundgren said the company was particularly disadvantage by the warm weather. “About 80% of our company’s year-over-year declines in comparable sales can be attributed to shortfalls in cold-weather goods such as coats, sweaters, boots, hats, gloves and scarves,” Lundgren said. “We also continued to feel the impact of lower spending by international tourists as the value of the dollar remained strong.”

J.C. Penney: What warm weather? J.C. Penney produced a 3.9% same stores sales increase in November and December, putting it on a trajectory to achieve its full year forecast of comps in the 4% to 5% range after reporting inreases of 3.4%, 4.1% and 6.4% in the first, second and third quarters. CEO Marvin Ellison did say warm weather negatively affected apparel sales, but touted the company’s success with private brands, compelling gift offerings and solid omnichannel execution with orders place online shipped from 250 stores. “I am especially pleased with the accelerated comp sales improvement from November to December, including record online sales for the company during the holiday season,” Ellison said.

Hhgregg: No weather excuses here. This operator of 227 stores said same store sales for its third quarter ended Dec. 31 declined 11%. The decline was most pronounced in the computer and tablet category where comps declined an estimated 35%, followed by a 10% decline in appliances, an 8% decline in consumer electronics and a 3% increase in home products. CEO Dennis May said, “we were challenged by the competitive pressures in the market.”

Conn’s: A 13.9% same store sales increase in the furniture and mattress category, wasn’t enough to offset weakness in electronics, home office and other categories, resulting in an overall comp decline of 5.9% for the period ended Dec. 31. “Excluding the impact of our decision to exit video game products, digital cameras, and certain tablets, same store sales for December increased 1.8%,” said Conn’s CEO Norm Miller.

American Eagle Outfitters: Fourth quarter same store sales to date increased 4% at American Eagle, the company said in press release on Jan. 8 that affirmed its profit forecast. CEO Jay Schottenstein said the company had a solid holiday season despite a very challenging environment. “The online business was particularly strong, and we leveraged our omnichannel tools to deliver an improved customer experience,” Schottenstein said.

Gordmans: This operator of 102 discount department stores played the weather card in explaining why its 1.9% same store sales decline in November and December was worse than expected. President and CEO Andy Hall said, “Following a positive start to the fourth quarter, sales declined in December as unfavorably warm weather throughout our upper Midwest foot print negatively impacted pre-Christmas store traffic. Full fourth quarter sales are expected to decline between 1% and 1.5% versus an earlier forecast that had comps ranging from flat to up 2%.

Finish Line: After weathering a disastrous third quarter, this operator of more than 1,000 predominantly mall-based athletic footwear and apparel stores said it expects same store sales to increase in the low to mid single digit range in the fourth quarter ending Feb. 27. Comps declined 5.8% in the third quarter ended Nov. 28, largely due to supply chain issues cause by the implementation of a new warehouse and order management system. The problems have been resolved, according to Chairman and CEO Glenn Lyon.

Bed Bath & Beyond: This leading home goods hinted of holiday challenges ahead when it preannounced weak sales and profit estimates on Dec. 22, for its third quarter that ended November 28. Sure enough, comps during the period, which included most of Thanksgiving weekend, were essentially flat, on a constant currency basis, with a decline in stores offset by online growth. The company said expects it fourth quarter comps to be flat to up 2%.

Gap Inc.: Total sales for the five weeks ended Jan. 2 fell 3% on a constant currency basis and same store sales fell 5%. Comps declined 9% at Banana Republic, 7% at Old Navy and 2% at Gap.

Container Store: This operator of 77 stores revealed that it expects fourth quarter same store sales to decline between 3% and 5% when it announced ddddor the third quarter ended Nov. 28 on Jan. 8. Third quarter comps increased 0.5%, but the introduction of free shipping in April on orders of more than $75 dinged profits.

Costco: The nation’s leading membership warehouse club had an okay holiday season with same store sales at U.S. clubs up 4%, excluding the impact of gasoline sales.

Five Below: Things were looking up at Five Below during the nine week period ended Jan. 2. Same store sales increased 4.1%, which prompted CEO Joel Anderson to say, “We are very pleased with our strong performance across both new and existing stores during the all-important holiday season which illustrates the broad appeal and value proposition of Five Below.” Exciting and cohesive marketing improved brand awareness of Five Below’s.

Children’s Place: This operator of nearly 1,100 stores blew away its sales expectations for the holiday season with same store sales up 7.3% for the first nine weeks of its fourth quarter, far better than guidance that called for a low single digit increase and a prior year gain of 7.3%. The strong results prompted CEO Jane Elfers to comment, “We have consistently stated that our multi-pronged transformation strategy would begin to deliver results in the back half of 2015 and our announcement today clearly indicates that we are on track.”

Toys “R” Us: Toys “R” Us produced surprisingly strong results, especially online, despite operating in what is arguably the most competitive of all holiday categories. Same store sales at domestic stores increased 2.9% while internationally comps increased 5.1%, on a constant currency basis, during the five week period ended Jan. 2. The company said it enjoyed particular strength in online sales, but did not disclose a percentage growth rate, with core toy, learning and seasonal categories generating the strongest growth. “Our positive holiday same store sales results demonstrate our ability to execute our holiday plan in a highly competitive marketplace,” said Toys “R” Us CEO Dave Brandon. “We successfully maintained a strong in-stock position on the hottest toys while offering customers competitive prices and an extensive merchandise assortment, both in stores and online.”

Barnes & Noble: The operator of 640 stores and BN.com said its “core” same store sales for the nine-week holiday period ended Jan. 2, increased 1.6% on top of a prior year increase of 1.7%. Retail sales, which include Barnes & Noble stores and BN.com, declined 0.8% to $1.1 billion. Sales of the company’s NOOK products declined 25.8% to $41.2 million which caused total company same store sales to increase 0.6%. CEO Ron Boire said the company was pleased with the performance of its bookstores, adding, “We were also encouraged by the improved performance of BN.com during December, as the site remained stable and traffic improved through the holiday period.”

Fred’s: This Memphis-based operator of 659 discount stores – 376 with a pharmacy – said same store sales for December increased 2.4%, however that was on top of prior year decline of 1.4%. Commenting on the December results, CEO Jerry Shore said he was pleased and attributed the growth to holiday season merchandising initiatives and the specialty pharmacy business. Strength in the general merchandise and holiday gift-giving areas were offset by weakness in the retail pharmacy business due to the low incidence of cold and flu activity.

Tandy Leather Factory: December was a good month for leather. Tandy Leather Factory CEO Jon Thompson said the company set a new monthly record with sales of $9.1 million and, importantly, it did so without sacrificing margin to cap off what had been a challenging year. Same store sales at the company’s 82 retail leathercraft stores increased 3%.

Stein Mart: This operator of 278 off-price department stores said its same stores sales increased 1.8% during the five week period ended Jan. 2, on top of a prior year increase of 5.8%.

The Buckle: Things were pretty quiet for this operator of 469 mall-based apparel, footwear and accessories stores. Same store sales declined 5.4%.

Signet Jewelers: The world’s largest retailer of diamond jewelry, with banners such as Kay, Jared and Zale, got even bigger during the eight weeks ended Dec. 26. Total same store sales increased 4.9% on top of a prior year increase of 3.6%, giving the company confidence that it would achieve the upper end of its profit forecast. CEO Mark Light said, “Signet delivered excellent holiday sales as a result of the successful execution of our product, marketing, and omnichannel selling strategies, as well as our superior customer experience.”