- The Washington Times - Monday, December 2, 2002

NEW YORK The holiday shopping season had a solid start during the Thanksgiving weekend as retailers wooed consumers with discounts and specials on televisions, DVD players and other popular gifts.
Discounters including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had the greatest success, plying customers with early-bird specials and other enticements, while major department stores and clothing chains generally met modest sales goals, according to analysts' preliminary estimates. Online sales also were strong.
"It was as expected. It wasn't a bonanza, but it was a good start," said Steve Nevill, partner at Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm, indicating that this is still expected to be a difficult season.
"One consistent thing we heard was that only things marked down were selling. Consumers want a bargain, especially around the holiday," he said.
Shoppers interviewed during the weekend agreed.
"I've never seen so many sales. I feel like a kid in a candy store," said Edna McCoy, of New Haven, Conn., shopping at Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover, Md.
Her purchases included a pea coat from Old Navy and perfume and items from Bath and Body Works. Miss McCoy said she usually waits until the last minute, but she received her pension check and decided to start early.
Mr. Nevill estimated that sales at department stores and mall-based clothing chains were up 2 percent for the weekend, while discounters had a 4 percent gain.
That's about in line with analysts' modest projections for the overall holiday season. With consumers concerned about job security and shrunken stock portfolios, no one expects business to be robust.
A lack of must-have items could also limit sales, although there are popular gifts including Hasbro's Fur Real Friend a toy cat DVD players and other home electronics items and kitchenware. These merchandise categories did well during the weekend, as did apparel, which is in greater demand as the temperatures have fallen.
The Thanksgiving weekend isn't necessarily a good barometer of how retailers will fare for the entire season. During the past few years, the weekend accounted for less than 10 percent of sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
But with six fewer shopping days in the season than last year, Thanksgiving weekend became even more critical to merchants, according to C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group.
"There is no way you could have made up for this weekend, considering the shorter season," he said. "This is the kind of kickoff that retailers need if they are going to equal last year's numbers."
Merchants went into the season with lean inventories, hoping to avoid drastic after-Christmas discounts. But they still felt the need to discount heavily this weekend to get a good start on the season, Mr. Nevill said.
Economic worries were on many shoppers' minds.
Debbie Curry of Cincinnati said she did not buy anything Saturday because she was comparison shopping at discount stores.
"I want to get my 8-year-old daughter a [Barbie Sing-a-long Karaoke machine], but I need to get the best buy I can," Mrs. Curry said. She said she will probably wait until closer to Christmas to start spending. "I don't have much to spend this year, so I have to be careful."
Online merchants had a good weekend. Sales were up 61 percent on Friday, compared with the day after Thanksgiving a year ago, according to BizRate.com, a research company.
Another research firm, comScore Networks Inc., reported online sales rose 40 percent. Both estimates exclude results from the travel category.
Wal-Mart set a record for one-day sales on Friday, generating $1.43 billion. Last year, Wal-Mart reported sales of $1.25 billion the day after Thanksgiving.
Major mall operators, including Taubman Centers Inc. and General Growth Properties, said sales and shopper traffic for the weekend ran higher than a year ago.
"Last year, sales and traffic were sporadic," said Wally Brewster, senior vice president of corporate marketing at Chicago-based General Growth Properties. "This year, we are ahead of expectations."
Michael Gould, chairman of Bloomingdale's, also said sales beat expectations for the weekend.
"We felt good versus last year," he said, noting the store saw "good" increases, although he declined to elaborate.
But asked to predict the rest of the season, Mr. Gould declined.
"We take each day as it comes."


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