Business Highlights


These retailers could use some holiday cheer

NEW YORK (AP) — The holiday shopping season is always a make-or-break period for struggling retailers.

But this year, the fight to grab shoppers has intensified, making it difficult for stores to use the season that accounts for about 20 per cent of the retail industry’s annual sales to bounce back.

Stores face cautious shoppers who are juggling stagnant wages and higher costs for food and health care. And Web-savvy customers are using information easily available on their smartphones to hold out for ever-better deals. All of that means that stores have had to discount more — and earlier — this holiday shopping season.

Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC., a retail research firm, expects fourth-quarter earnings for the 123 retailers he tracks will rise 7.7 per cent, down from a projected 16 per cent increase in June.


Bird’s fate shaping energy development in US West

SARATOGA, Wyo. (AP) — Efforts to conserve a struggling species of grouse that ranges across the Western U.S. are having far-reaching effects on the region’s energy industry as the Obama administration decides whether the bird needs more protections.

Sales of leases on 8.1 million acres of federal oil and gas parcels — an area larger than Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined — are on hold because of worries that drilling could harm greater sage grouse, according to government data obtained by The Associated Press.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s delay on the parcels underscores just how much is at stake for an industry that finds its future inextricably intertwined with a bird once known primarily for its elaborate mating display.


ECB puts off stimulus decision amid oil slump

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — The European Central Bank is getting ready to offer more stimulus for the struggling eurozone economy — but expects to make a decision only early next year after it assesses the impact of sharply lower oil prices, President Mario Draghi said Thursday.

Draghi is facing skepticism within the board of the ECB — particularly from German officials — on whether to approve a more drastic stimulus program, such as large-scale purchases of government bonds.

After agreeing to keep its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 0.05 per cent, as expected, the ECB did not unveil new stimulus programs on Thursday.


Average Affordable Care premiums going up in 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — Many people covered under President Barack Obama’s health care law will face higher premiums next year, the administration acknowledged Thursday. While the average increases are modest, it’s more fodder for the nation’s political battles over health care.

Officials stressed that millions of current customers can mitigate the financial hit if they’re willing to shop around for another plan in a more competitive online marketplace. Subsidies will also help cushion the impact.

It’s currently taking an average of 30 minutes for returning customers to update their coverage.

Premiums for the most popular type of plan are going up an average of 5 per cent in the 35 states where the federal government is running the health insurance exchanges, said a report from the Health and Human Services Department.


US unemployment aid applications fall to 297,000

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits slipped below 300,000 last week, after having spiked above that level in the prior week for the first time in nearly three months.

Weekly applications fell 17,000 to a seasonally adjusted 297,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 4,750 to 299,000.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. As fewer people seek unemployment benefits, it suggests that employers are holding onto more workers and potentially looking to bolster their hiring.

Applications have been under 300,000 for 11 of the past 12 weeks, an unusually low level that suggests employers are anticipating stronger economic growth. The four week average for jobless claims has plummeted 9 per cent over the past 12 months.


LL Bean struggles to meet demand for iconic boot

LEWISTON, Maine (AP) — Whether it’s “lumberjack chic” or old-school utility, demand for L.L. Bean boots is surging — so much so that some customers will have to wait until February to get their holiday purchases.

A backlog of 60,000 boot orders could grow to 100,000 by month’s end, and the company is in the process of hiring 100 workers and purchasing additional equipment to catch up with demand.

The rubber-bottomed, leather-topped “duck boot” has seen sales grow from fewer than 100,000 a decade ago to about 450,000 this year. Next year, the number is expected to top 500,000.

That growth has outpaced even the company’s aggressive expectations, Armstrong said. But it’s difficult to say exactly what’s boosting demand — popularity on college campuses, new styles including bright colours or the plaid-and-boots style dubbed “lumberjack chic.”


Sears 3Q loss widens as retailer reshapes itself

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. (AP) — Sears Holdings Corp. tried to reassure investors Thursday that financial manoeuvrs — closing stores, selling assets and slashing inventory — mean it still has enough cash available to run its business.

The Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based company, which operates Kmart and Sears, said it has raised $2.2 billion so far this year. Still, Sears’ third-quarter loss widened on a 13 per cent revenue decline.

The report shows the challenges continue for billionaire hedge fund manager Edward Lampert, who is Sears Holdings’ CEO and chairman, in turning around the company.


Starbucks to push more food, offer mobile ordering

NEW YORK (AP) — Starbucks plans to let customers across the U.S. order ahead on their smartphones over the next year, a move that should help shrink lines as it pushes more snacks, sandwiches and even wine.

In select areas, the chain also plans to offer delivery by late 2015.

The new ordering options and a dramatic increase in U.S. food sales were part of the plans Starbucks executives laid out to drive up profit over the next five years. To convince more people to get something to eat with their drinks, Starbucks has already revamped its baked goods and introduced new sandwiches, snacks and salad boxes.

The push has been paying off. In its most recent quarter, the company said breakfast sandwich sales rose by 30 per cent. Still, it said its share of the fast-food lunch market remains at around 2 per cent.


Experts see Korean parallels in Sony hack

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Some cybersecurity experts say they’ve found striking similarities between the code used in the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment and attacks blamed on North Korea which targeted South Korean companies and government agencies last year.

Sony is working with the FBI and Silicon Valley security firm FireEye to investigate the attacks that apparently gave access to unreleased movies as well as personnel records, technical documents and other material. It has not commented on any Korean connection, except to deny a report Wednesday that it was poised to announce such a link. The FBI and FireEye also had no comment Wednesday.

But three independent researchers told The Associated Press there are intriguing signs of a North Korean link to the attack, even as others warned it’s difficult to make a definitive connection.


Troubled US homeowners get more government relief

WASHINGTON (AP) — Homeowners whose mortgages were modified to stave off foreclosure could next year receive an additional $5,000 reduction in their loans from the government, the Treasury and Housing and Urban Development departments said Thursday.

The payments would impact roughly 1 million borrowers who received reduced mortgage rates through the Home Affordable Modification Program during the Great Recession. The discounted 2 per cent mortgage rates are scheduled to rise by a percentage point for many of these borrowers entering the sixth year of the program. That would increase monthly payments for those who might still be struggling to find work or additional income.

The plan announced Thursday is designed to mute the shock from higher interest rates — and thus higher monthly payments — on HAMP borrowers.


By The Associated Press=

The Dow Jones Industrial average lost 12.52 points, or 0.1 per cent, to 17,900.10. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 2.41 points, or 0.1 per cent, to 2,071.92. The Nasdaq composite dropped 5.04 points, or 0.1 per cent, to 4,769.44.

Benchmark U.S. crude fell 57 cents to close at $66.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 28 cents to close at $69.64 on the ICE Futures exchange in London. Wholesale gasoline fell 1.2 cents to close at $1.795 a gallon. Heating oil fell 1.6 cents to close at $2.118 a gallon. Natural gas fell 15.6 cents to close at $3.649 per 1,000 cubic feet.