Although the holiday season sales gains posted by the three major bookstore chains in 2004 were well below the increases recorded in 2003, Barnes & Noble, Borders Group and Books-A-Million fared better than they had expected, especially in light of weak sales in September and October. Total sales for the three chains rose 2.8% during the holidays, compared to a 6.4% increase for Christmas 2003. But given the strength of bestsellers in 2003 and the lack of hot new fiction in 2004, executives at the chains were happy with the holiday performance.

Echoing comments made by B&N earlier this month, when it reported a 3.9% increase in holiday sales, executives at Borders and BAM said slower sales of bestsellers were offset by solid gains in a wide variety of segments. Sandy Cochran, BAM president, said that while there "were no runaway bestsellers" in the period, a number of categories did very well.

The cooking category "had its largest increase in years," Cochran said, while Christian fiction continued its "explosive growth." Inspiration, led by Your Best Life Now; humor, topped by America (The Book); and children's, driven by The Polar Express and The Series of Unfortunate Events movie tie-ins, were other segments that posted solid gains over the holidays. Books with a regional flavor were topped by Fannie Flagg's A Redbird Christmas.

Holiday sales at BAM rose a total of 2.4%, to $114.1 million, for the nine-week period ended January 1. Comparable-store sales rose 2.9%, and books and the cafe department were among the chain's best performing sectors, reported CFO Rick Wallington.

At Borders, book sales also increased at a faster rate than sales for the company overall, said CFO Ed Wilhelm. The DVD segment also had strong sales increases, while the music sector continued to struggle. Total sales at Borders for the October 25—January 9 period rose 4.8%, to $1.2 billion. The strongest gains came in Borders's international group, where sales jumped 29.4%. In its domestic operations, sales increased 1.8%, to $1.06 billion, driven by a 4% increase in superstore sales, to $763 million. Comparable-store sales at the superstores rose 1.4% in the period. Sales at Waldenbooks fell 3.4%, to $302.4 million, due to a combination of store closures and a 1.6% drop in same-store sales.

Although sales of bestsellers did not keep pace with sales in the 2003 holiday season, the chain did well with Americaand The Five People You Meet in Heaven, as well as both The Da Vinci Code and the illustrated edition. Two fiction titles that were released late in the year, State of Fear and A Salty Piece of Land, sold very well in the weeks right before Christmas. Wilhelm noted that not only is the holiday season becoming more "compressed," but that the post-holiday weeks are becoming more important as customers redeem gift cards. Books bought after Christmas tend to be more in the self-help category, Wilhelm observed.