- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) Shoppers jammed into malls during the weekend to snap up pre-Christmas bargains on clothing and electronics.
Still, jitters about jobs and the economy dampened sales, frustrating merchants who had been counting on a big pickup from lackluster shopping after Thanksgiving. That puts more pressure on retailers in the final stretch to meet their already-modest sales goals for the holiday season.
"This week is going to be a big battle to get consumers to spend," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C., noting that sales on Saturday and yesterday, though solid, still fell short of expectations.
Indeed, consumers were being choosy with a focus on bargains.
Amanda Loughry, a store manager at Pier 1 Imports in Towson, Md., said that "people are still buying, but are more aware of prices."
She added that small gifts ready-wrapped with netting and ribbon marked down slightly to $10 and $5 were selling quickly.
"We pick out what we want and then look around for the lowest price. As long as it's the quality we want," said Scott Harrington, 46, of Baltimore, who made a special trip to a Hecht's store in Towson to buy a mattress on sale for $50 50 percent off the regular price.
Dennis Sullivan, 48, of Harford County, Md., shopping at the Towson Town Center, bought five silver jewelry charms marked down 50 percent.
"I bought more than one because it was such a good deal," Mr. Sullivan said.
Doreen Carlson, 56, said she regretted going out early to buy gifts.
"I started out early, and I've decided that's not a good thing," said Miss Carlson, who was at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., at the end of last week. She said one game she bought originally for $45 she found at Target last week for $18. She decided to return the original.
Merchants are finding themselves in the same spot they were a year ago, dependent on late buying to lift sales above their expectations for a sluggish season. Retailers got a last-minute reprieve in 2001, but there was no guarantee that would happen again.
Michael P. Niemira, vice president of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, believes that if the last-minute spending splurge doesn't meet expectations, sales will fall below 2 percent same-store sales gain for the combined November and December months.
Same-store sales are sales at stores open at least a year and are considered the best indicator of a retailer's health.
Madison Riley, principal at Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm, is lowering his estimate for the holiday season, saying that same-store sales gains will be in the 2 percent to 3 percent range, instead of the 2 percent to 4 percent range.
Major stores are scheduled to report their weekly results today that will include sales from the weekend.
New York City stores appeared to benefit from fear of a mass-transit strike, which could begin today.
"Stores were unusually busy," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, noting that he believed that some shoppers were scrambling to finish their holiday shopping in case of a strike.

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