Many came to look, not buy Shoppers turn out but tend to spend rather selectively; Retailing


The first weekend of holiday shopping brought consumers out in droves, driving sales above expectations for some retailers and giving the biggest chunk of business to discounters and stores pushing promotions.

But unseasonably warm weather dampened sales of some cold-weather goods and kept many shoppers out of the malls altogether, keeping sales even with last year's, according to one sampling of 2,500 stores in 48 regional malls nationwide.

"People are very optimistic about this season, and when all is said and done, it will come in right on target," said John Konarski, a vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The trade group released the mall survey late yesterday, showing apparel sales down 2.3 percent and toys, health and beauty and miscellaneous items down 1.7 percent, but jewelry and home furnishings up 4.6 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively.

The shopping center industry trade group is still forecasting a 4 percent sales increase for the season, based on a survey of three dozen retail industry analysts.

"For one thing, the weather was very warm across the country, and people stayed out of the centers," Konarski said. "And, secondly, it is less of a sales weekend and more of a 'let's look and see' weekend."

Another measure, the TeleCheck Retail Index, showed same-store sales climbed 4.4 percent Friday compared with last year and by the same percentage in the Baltimore metropolitan region. The index tracks sales volume of check-writing consumers at a cross-section of retailers.

Consumers in the Baltimore region spent about the same as last year -- $122.64 on average, with most of the sales increase due to more people out shopping, said William Ford, senior economic adviser to TeleCheck, the world's largest check authorization company.

"The Baltimore area got off to a good start; the season looks like it's doing OK," Ford said. "You've got a good strong regional economy going there."

Less than 10 percent of the holiday purchases likely were made over the long weekend, with the bulk, 44 percent, expected to occur between Dec. 15 and Dec. 24, Konarski said. But the weekend still remains an important gauge of the crucial selling period, which can account for as much as a quarter of retail sales and half the annual profit for some companies.

Over the weekend, "we got a sense of what's hot," Konarski said. "We know Furbys are big. We know promotions are pushing a lot of the traffic. But more and more shopping gets pushed to the last week before Christmas. That's the most important time."

So far, the discounters have emerged as the strongest players.

"They probably got the lion's share of business this weekend," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "Getting people to the stores early in the morning, they really got a jump on other types of stores. For some of the smaller centers and independents, their busy season starts in a week."

Association members reported strong sales in electronics, toys and household merchandise, though apparel sales lagged.

"When you have 65 degrees out there, it's tough to sell outerwear or sweaters," Saquella said.

Retailers offering early-bird specials, giveaways or availability of popular items were almost guaranteed to draw crowds.

At Montgomery Ward in Towson, for instance, about 600 shoppers lined up at 6 a.m. Friday to buy a Furby, the electronic, Gremlin-like creature that has replaced Tickle Me Elmo as the hot, hard-to-find toy. The store sold out its supply of 750 by 8 a.m., then gave rain checks to another 100 customers, said Randy Householder, store manager. But when the Furbys ran out, the crowds stayed.

"If it goes like it went this past weekend, we're going to have a great Christmas," Householder said yesterday. "It was incredible."

Hot sellers also included electronics items such as digital camcorders, videocassette recorders and televisions and home decor such as furniture and draperies, he said.

The enticement of free TVs -- and low prices -- boosted computer sales at CompUSA on Friday and Saturday, said Jerry Greenberg, general manager of the Towson store.

"The new low price points brought out new buyers," he said. "We had systems for $699 that people were fighting over."

Even smaller, independent stores reported a good start to the season.

"It started off well for us, better than last year," said Jeff Franklin, owner of Be Beep A Toy Shop, in strip malls in Severna Park and Annapolis. "But this first weekend isn't by any means the biggest weekend of the season for us. It will be a gradual crescendo to the holidays."

One popular item has been the yo-yo, he said, adding, "It's one of those traditional toys that tends to run in cycles. It's the biggest yo-yo fad we've had."

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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