- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Tomorrow marks the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, but for many consumers, shopping already has begun.

Last week, sales at department and chain stores were up 1 percent from the week earlier, said the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), a New York trade group.

“We’re attributing that increase to some early holiday buying and seasonal demand for goods picked up this week, especially cold-weather goods,” said Patrice Duker, an ICSC spokeswoman.

Visa credit- and debit-card purchases jumped 5 percent for the week to $22.6 billion.

“We’re seeing that the holiday shopping season really started in earnest,” said Kenny Thomas, a Visa spokesman. “It’s a significant uptick over last week and the first two weeks in November.”

Retailers hoped to get an early jump on holiday sales this year out of concern that high energy prices would shock consumers into spending less this Christmas season, a two-month period that accounts for 25 percent to 40 percent of their annual sales.

More than one-third, 38 percent, of shoppers said high energy costs will affect their holiday spending decisions, according to an early November study by SG Cowen & Co. LLC, a New York market-research firm.

The study showed that 30 percent of people already had started their shopping, up from 28 percent at the same time last year.

Despite the early start, Black Friday — which consists of top-secret sales that last only a few hours, or coffee and doughnuts for people who camp out before dawn hoping for bargains in short supply — is still important, analysts say.

“I don’t think Black Friday, Saturday and Sunday will ever lose its interest,” Mrs. Duker said. “Consumers who love shopping on Black Friday do it because it’s part of their traditions and to take advantage of some of the great deals retailers will have this weekend.”

Black Friday, which earned its nickname from the vast number of retailers whose books went from red to black on the day after Thanksgiving, is no longer the biggest shopping time of the year — it’s usually the weekend before Christmas.

Black Friday and the weekend after Christmas typically bring in about 10 percent of the season’s sales. Shoppers — the 130 million expected this weekend — are brought to the malls by family traditions, good deals or just the frenzy of the day.

Retailers are expected to offer deep discounts tomorrow in an attempt to lure customers. Wal-Mart is promising to match any competitor’s ad, and many stores are offering discounts of 20 percent or more for the first few hours they are open.

Retailers should expect a good weekend, analysts say.

“I think retailers will be happy when all is said and done, when people stop [ringing up] items on Sunday afternoon,” Mrs. Duker said. “We just have to be mindful that whether [the weekend] does well or not so well, it’s only a small picture of what the holiday season is going to be.”

The National Retail Federation revised its holiday sales forecast earlier this week, saying it expects sales to increase 6 percent this year to $439.5 billion. The D.C. trade group originally expected sales to rise 5 percent.

“Recent consumer spending has surpassed our expectations, and we expect this momentum to continue through the holiday season,” said Tracy Mullin, NRF president and chief executive officer.

Retail sales rose 7.2 percent compared with a year ago in both September and October, leading to the forecast change.

Electronics are expected to be one of the top purchases this season, led by Apple’s IPod and Microsoft’s XBox 360, which went on sale Tuesday.

“It’s going to continue to drive a ton of sales and make [electronics] a strong category across the board,” Mrs. Duker said.

Prices of other electronics, such as flat-screen televisions, have fallen since last year, widening the products’ appeal, she said.

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