Shoppers slow pace after early frenzy

The Baltimore Sun

Shoppers who kept retail cash registers ringing early Friday appeared to temper their spending as the Thanksgiving shopping weekend wore on, setting the stage for what many analysts predict will be solid end-of-the year sales but far short of spectacular.

Reports released yesterday by the National Retail Federation and other industry analysts said discounts on flat-screen televisions and other electronics that lured shoppers during the pre-dawn hours Friday helped offset slowing traffic the rest of the weekend. About 140 million consumers hit the stores this past weekend -- about 5 million fewer than last year, the retail group said.

But the trade association also found that average consumer spending for the weekend rose 18.9 percent, to $360.15. Most analysts attributed that showing to the Friday deals.

Various retail reports over the weekend indicated a strong showing for department and toy stores while discounters such as Wal-Mart continued to face challenges. Many analysts predict that overall holiday retail sales won't outperform last year's growth, blaming a slowdown in the housing market and some concern by lower-income shoppers about energy prices.

Retailers study the Thanksgiving weekend carefully because it traditionally kicks off the holiday spending season. November and December are when retailers typically ring up 20 percent to 40 percent of their annual sales.

Each year, retailers seem to start earlier to lure consumers. Some stores and malls opened just after midnight Thursday to get a jump on competitors.

"We're pretty sure that Friday saw record numbers," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. "We think shoppers got out there and got what they needed on Friday and not as many shopped through the weekend as last year."

The trade group said yesterday that it was maintaining its projection of a 5 percent increase in holiday spending this year to $457.4 billion. Last year's spending increased 6.1 percent. Visa USA also estimated yesterday that the sales increase would be 7.5 percent, slightly lower than last year. Visa includes gas sales in its projections.

Consumers are expected to be searching for bargains this year, which is what seemed to drive decisions over the weekend.

Lines formed before sunrise at stores such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Circuit City, which offered discounts that ended at noon or earlier on everything from laptop computers, digital cameras and televisions. Once the deals ended, so did the crowds. By Friday evening, analysts said, the stores had emptied for the weekend.

"What we're seeing is that people are shopping stores for those items they don't expect to be around later in the holiday season -- the game consoles and flat-screen televisions," said Paul Cohen, a spokesman for Visa USA, which tracks holiday spending on its credit cards. "On other types of items like clothing, it appears that consumers are willing to wait and hope for better deals down the road."

Britt Beemer of America's Research Group said people who typically work the Friday after Thanksgiving and shop afterward skipped the stores this year. Some attended the pre-dawn sales and then headed to work.

"The malls and stores had that surge of business up until about 2" in the afternoon, said Beemer, whose company tracks shopping patterns. "At 6 [p.m.], you could almost roll a bowling ball down some of these stores."

It looked like a typical Sunday at Towson Town Center mall yesterday afternoon, not the busy holiday season. Parking was plentiful. The mall had a steady number of customers, but it was far from crowded. A traffic enforcer was on hand to deal with jammed parking lots, but there weren't enough cars to direct.

Some shoppers said they came to find deals while avoiding the rush of the day after Thanksgiving.

Linda Loubert, a professor at Morgan State University, said she figured it wouldn't be as crowded because the Baltimore Ravens football game was on television. She came to get a feel for the bargains and merchandise offerings. She planned to buy gifts if there were good deals, but said she shops throughout the season.

"It kind of helps to get the flavor of what the stores are offering," she said.

Beemer said the lackluster weekend isn't a good sign for the rest of the season. Retailers are going to have to offer better discounts to get shoppers in stores.

"Things don't look so good," Beemer said. "If the retailer understands what's going on they better have some early bird specials on the weekends between now and Christmas."

Wal-Mart began cutting prices early in November because of sluggish sales. On Saturday the world's largest retailer reported that its sales for the month, which included the day after Thanksgiving, still fell by 0.1 percent.

But other retailers said the season started off robust.

Jerry Storch, CEO and chairman of Toys "R" Us, said he was pleased with results for the weekend, noting that sales were strong across the board.

In addition to Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price's T.M.X. Elmo, hot toys include Fisher-Price's Kids Tough Digital Camera, and some of the toy retailer's exclusives like VTech Holdings Ltd.'s pink Nitro Notebook, a laptop computer.

Gail Lavielle, spokeswoman at Sears Holdings, which also owns Kmart stores, said yesterday the stores were busy through Friday and Saturday. At Sears, flat-screen TVs, digital cameras and Craftsman tools were the hot items. At Kmart, holiday decor including Christmas trees, jewelry and toys were the most popular.

Retailers also expect to see a surge in online sales today.

The Monday after Thanksgiving has been named "Cyber Monday" by the retail industry because many employees are believed to come to work and shop where they have faster Internet connections. Online retail sales this holiday season are expected to reach $27 billion, a 23 percent increase over last year, according to Forrester Research.

"We're expecting pretty good sales," Visa's Cohen said. "Last year was a pretty good Christmas, so that's hard to beat. This year will be good, but not as good."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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