- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

The Thanksgiving weekend gave the nation’s retailers a solid start to the holiday buying season, although there were still plenty of signs that consumers are cautious and looking for bargains even if the economy is improving.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other discounters had the strongest sales, attracting crowds of shoppers with specials on televisions, digital video disc players and toys. Department stores and mall-based apparel retailers were discounting less than they did last year, and their business was uneven.

“Sales appear to be better than last year, but the consumer is still value-oriented and is looking for sales,” said Walter Loeb, who runs his own retail consulting firm.

A dozen people were standing in line yesterday morning at a Best Buy in Dunwoody, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, waiting for doors to open at 10. Charles and Susan Lynch were typical of many shoppers, willing to spend but hoping to get a good deal.

“I was unemployed this time last year so my economic situation has greatly improved,” said Charles Lynch, who said the couple were looking for a home theater system.

Regina Elias, from Bayonne, N.J., shopping for discounted Bratz dolls yesterday at a K-B Toy store in Manhattan, said she was feeling “a little better than last year” about her finances.

“I’m working a lot of overtime,” she said, but she still plans to spend the same as last year — about $1,000.

Michael P. Niemira, a retail industry analyst with Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd., said of the weekend: “It was pretty good, but it wasn’t spectacular.” He said business was stronger for discounters than it was for department stores and apparel merchants.

Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman at the Washington-based National Retail Federation, said “it looks like [store] traffic was about the same as last year, possibly a little better than last year.”

“It was as good as we had hoped for,” she said.

Although the economy is recovering and consumer confidence is on the rise, a shopper’s own job security is often the greatest factor in individual spending.

Jane Howard of Melrose, Mass., was at CambridgeSide Galleria mall in Cambridge, Mass., early yesterday with her daughter, Daria Hinz. The day before, the two snapped up some “tremendous deals,” such as sweaters reduced by 40 percent, at another mall, Mrs. Howard said.

“I’m enjoying shopping this year. I feel like I’ve got enough money. I’m very happy because I’ve been in my job for a year,” she said.

Total retail sales Friday were up 4.8 percent to $7.2 billion from the Friday after Thanksgiving a year ago, after posting a 6.8 percent gain last year over 2001 results, according to ShopperTrak, which tallies sales at 30,000 retail outlets.

For Friday and Saturday combined, total sales were up about 5.5 percent, Mr. Niemira said.

Mr. Niemira said he still forecasts a sales gain of 4.5 percent for the November-December period, the best performance since 1999, when sales rose 5.4 percent. He based the estimate on sales from stores open at least a year, considered the best indicator of a retailer’s health. Last holiday season’s results were unchanged from 2001.

There were other indications that overall, it was a good weekend:

• Online sales had a strong showing on Friday. The research firm comScore Networks Inc. reported online sales rose 36 percent to $200 million on Friday from $145 million a year ago.

• Visa USA said total U.S. spending on Visa credit and debit cards on Friday and Saturday rose 12 percent over the same period last year.

• Wal-Mart said it hit a single-day company sales record on Friday, taking in more than $1.52 billion nationally, compared with $1.43 billion for the day after Thanksgiving a year ago.

• Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers, which owns or manages 31 shopping centers in 13 states, said stores reported more customers were paying full prices.

While the Thanksgiving weekend starts the holiday shopping spree, it no longer is the busiest period of the season. Last year, the weekend accounted for 10.1 percent of holiday sales, up from 8.4 percent in 2001.

The busiest day over the past few years has been the Saturday before Christmas. The busiest period is the last week before Christmas, which accounted for 41 percent of holiday sales a year ago, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The weekend’s business is also not a gauge of how the rest of the season will fare. Last year, stores enjoyed a robust Thanksgiving weekend, but sales then began to deteriorate.

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