Monday, December 1, 2003

Busy cash registers rang in the holiday season last weekend as nearly three-quarters of consumers shopped over the three days.

“As expected, consumers were out in full force last weekend,” said Tracy Mullin, president and chief executive of the National Retail Federation (NRF). “With the economy in better shape and a little more money in consumers’ pockets, we are hopeful the momentum continues throughout the holiday season.”

The trade group’s holiday survey found that 71.8 percent of consumers went shopping over the weekend — down from 75.6 percent last year. But retail officials say the dip is not a concern.

“This year people were buying, not browsing,” said Ellen Tolley, an NRF spokeswoman. “Sales were greater than they were last year.”

Sales from the first two days of the season totaled $12.4 billion, according to ShopperTrak, a retail research and analysis firm. Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — accounted for $7.2 billion and Saturday contributed $5.2 billion. The start of the season posted a 5.4 percent increase from a year ago.

“I think it’s definitely a good start,” said Andy Moser, senior managing director of GMAC Commercial Finance’s Retail Finance Group. “I’m cautiously optimistic. I think it will be difficult to sustain those kinds of numbers.”

In addition to the retail boost, the economy received more good news yesterday. An index of manufacturing activity from the Institute for Supply Management rose to its highest level in 20 years, and October construction spending was the best month on record.

The better-than-expected reports sent stocks surging, propelling the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 117 points, or 1.2 percent, to 9,899.

Despite the strong turnout last weekend, Mr. Moser said it is not an accurate predictor of how the entire holiday shopping season will fare, particularly because retailers knocked prices down so low to get shoppers into the stores.

“Everybody is so heavily promotional,” he said. “My concern is for retailers’ profitability. Retailers deposit profits in the bank, not sales.”

Last year, shoppers flocked to stores on the Thanksgiving weekend to take advantage of big promotions. However, sales trailed off in the middle of December as consumers waited until the last minute to make purchases. The Saturday before Christmas was the busiest shopping day in 2002.

During the official start of the holiday shopping season this year, about 39 percent of gifts bought included books, CDs, DVDs, videos and video games. About 35 percent of products purchased were clothes or clothing accessories, and 31 percent were toys, according to the NRF.

“Many consumers were driven to the stores last weekend by great sales on electronics and toys,” said Phil Rist, vice president of strategy for Bigresearch, which conducted the survey for the NRF. “Now that many of the most popular electronics are affordable for the average shopper, people are picking up DVD players and digital cameras as gifts, but also for themselves.”

For example, electronics superstore Best Buy sold $40 DVD players, $7.99 CDs and $11.99 DVDs during its six-hour sale on the day after Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, reported record single-day sales on Friday of more than $1.52 billion, with electronics, small appliances and toys leading the way.

Game Boy Advance, Hot Wheels T-Wrecks and G.I. Joe products topped the items that boys told Santa they wanted over the weekend, while girls wished for Barbie of Swan Lake, Barbie Mix & Magic: Real Food Kitchen, and the Bratz dolls, according to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services company.

Shoppers visited all types of retailers over the weekend. While 43.3 percent shopped at discounters, 29.4 percent purchased at department stores and 24 percent went to specialty stores, according to the NRF. Thirty-one percent of shoppers visited online stores.

The retail trade group estimates holiday sales in November and December will reach $217.4 billion — a 5.4 percent increase over last year.

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