- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Heavy promotions drew the crowds and kept the cash registers ringing at the nation's large discounters during the first official weekend of the holiday shopping season. But specialty stores didn't have as much luck as wary consumers tended to stay away from the malls.
The number of mall visitors Friday, Saturday and Sunday fell 7.4 percent from 2000, while the number of people shopping in department stores fell by 11.7 percent, according to the RCT National Retail Traffic Index, which tracks such data for retailers.
"I think the anecdotal reports confirm that this is going to be a pretty weak Christmas," said Frank Badillo, senior retail economist at consulting group Retail Forward in Columbus, Ohio. "I expect there is going to be a lot of variation because the falloff in the economy has affected different parts of the country differently."
Sales at stores open at least a year rose 2.3 percent over the comparable three-day period last year, according to Telecheck Services Inc., which analyzed checks written by consumers at 27,000 locations. Checks account for about one-third of retail spending.
The weekend's sales fall in line with TeleCheck's forecast of a 2 percent increase in same-store sales over the 32-day shopping season. In the District, sales climbed 1.4 percent, according to Telecheck.
With the emphasis on home and toys this year, stores like Wal-mart and Target had "a great holiday weekend," said Stewart Cohen, a principal at the Ozer Group, a Needham, Mass., retail consulting firm. "The guys that struggled were the mall-based retailers."
Mr. Cohen said consumers' mindsets have changed to "I need rather than I want … and there's a gravitation to home," leaving clothing stores out in the cold.
Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer with about 2,700 discount stores, reported record single-day sales on Friday of $1.25 billion. That's compared with $1.1 billion on the same day last year with about 100 fewer stores.
Home electronics, small appliances and toys were the top sellers at Wal-Mart this year.
Target, which polled about 10 percent of its 1,055 stores on Friday, reported electronics and toys were the hottest items there, too. All the stores surveyed reported sales increases for the day.
Sales for the Thanksgiving weekend were generally expected to be flat to slightly higher than last year, but heavy promotions and discounts used to persuade customers to open their wallets may slice into profits.
"It was interesting to see how retailers have not hesitated to cut prices from the opening bell I think they know it's going to be a weak Christmas," Mr. Badillo said. "A lot of the traffic has been generated by the deep discounts."
Department stores like Hecht's, Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor offered savings of 20 to 50 percent on merchandise. Some retailers like Macy's offered early-bird savings from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
"It's part of getting people in the stores," Mr. Cohen said. "They want to get a jump on business."
Typically, the first shopping weekend of the holiday season beginning the day after Thanksgiving gauges how retailers will do for the rest of the season. But "Black Friday," which retailers have relied on to pull their ledgers out of the red for the year, has lost some significance in recent years because people have been waiting much later in the season to do their shopping.
Sales during the Thanksgiving weekend have accounted for less than 10 percent of retailers' overall holiday sales for the past four years, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
"There is a long 32-day shopping season this year and an extra day at the end for last-minute shopping," said William Ford, TeleCheck's senior economic adviser.
"We anticipate the strongest sales to occur in the last week before Christmas."
Online shopping posted gains compared with normal shopping days, but its increase was not as strong as last year's, according to market research group Nielsen/NetRatings Inc.
Twenty-two percent more home Internet users shopped on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, compared with the daily average for Monday through Thursday.
That growth compares with a 27 percent jump during last year's post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping.
This report is based in part on wire service reports.


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