- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — The 2005 holiday shopping season got off to a modest start over the Thanksgiving weekend as consumers responded initially to aggressive discounting and then retreated.

“There was a lot of hype, a lot of promotions and lot of people, but the results were on the lukewarm side,” said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, estimating that the weekend’s sales results were down from a year ago. He said heavy markdowns forced retailers to sell more goods to meet sales targets.

Analysts said there was heavy shopper traffic early Friday when stores opened even earlier than usual for the day after Thanksgiving, offering deep discounts. But when the early bird specials were over, consumers lost their enthusiasm.

“If you give Americans a bargain, they will get up whatever time to take advantage of it. But I don’t think this weekend turned out to be as big as retailers hoped,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group in Charleston, S.C.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which stumbled in the 2004 holiday season by not offering enough discounts, was back in the game, attracting hordes of shoppers in the pre-dawn hours Friday with discounted TVs and DVD players. Its efforts appeared to have paid off as the retailer reported better-than-expected sales Friday and estimated that November sales at stores open at least a year would be up 4.3 percent.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. said traffic and sales over the weekend were better than expected, but didn’t give details. Toys R Us Inc. spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh said the company was pleased with results for the weekend, citing best-selling bargains such as Mattel Inc.’s Barbie fashion mall and MGA’s Bratz doll styling head.

ShopperTrak RCT Corp., which monitors sales at more than 45,000 retail outlets, found that it was a difficult weekend overall. The company said late Saturday that Friday sales slipped 0.9 percent to $8 billion, a small change from a hefty 10.8 percent gain a year earlier. But Mr. Niemira, who serves as a consultant to ShopperTrak, said the company’s preliminary figures showed that business dropped off sharply Saturday, making the weekend’s results weaker than a year ago.

Actual results for Saturday will not be available until today, he said.

The National Retail Federation offered a more upbeat report. According to a survey of 4,209 consumers conducted by Bigresearch LLC on Friday and Saturday, total weekend spending from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday was $27.8 billion, a 21.9 percent increase from last year’s $22.8 billion. The figures include online spending.

According to Visa USA, overall sales volume on Visa branded cards for the combined Friday and Saturday period surpassed $7 billion, a 15 percent increase over the year-ago period.

A clearer picture of how the retailers fared over the Thanksgiving weekend will emerge Thursday, when retailers report sales results for November.

Forecasts for holiday shopping have improved in recent weeks amid declining gasoline prices. Although gas is cheaper than it was a few months ago, it is still more expensive than at this time last year, and shoppers face higher heating bills this winter. Given such challenges, stores made a concerted effort to lure shoppers with more enticing bargains, expanded hours on Friday and other gimmicks.

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