Solid gains start retailing season

The Thanksgiving weekend gave the nation's retailers a solid start to the holiday season, although consumers remained focused on bargains even as the economy improves.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other discounters attracted crowds of shoppers with specials on TVs, DVD players and toys and had the strongest sales.

Department stores and mall-based clothing retailers were discounting less than they did last year, and their business was uneven.

"Sales appear to be better than last year, but the consumer is still value-oriented," and looking for big bargains, said Walter Loeb, who runs his own New York-based retail consulting firm.

A dozen people were standing in line Sunday outside a Best Buy in Dunwoody, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, waiting for doors to open at 10 a.m. Charles and Susan Lynch were typical of many shoppers, willing to spend but hoping to get a good deal.

"I was unemployed this time last year so my economic situation has greatly improved," said Charles Lynch. He said the couple was looking for a home theater system.

Vanessa Gonzalez walked out of a Wal-Mart store in Miami on Saturday afternoon after buying an HP Pavilion desktop computer with a 17-inch monitor for $498.

"At that price, I couldn't resist," she said. She was planning to surprise her two teenagers with the computer.

Michael P. Niemira, a retail analyst at The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd., said the weekend "was pretty good, but it wasn't spectacular." He described business as stronger for discounters than it was for department stores and apparel merchants.

Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman at the Washington-based National Retail Federation, noted that "it looks like (store) traffic was about the same as last year, possibly a little better than last year."

"It was as good as we had hoped for," she said.

Although the economy is recovering and consumer confidence is on the rise, a shopper's own job security is often the greatest factor in how much he or she spends.

Total retail sales for Friday were up 4.8 percent to $7.2 billion from the Friday after Thanksgiving a year ago, after posting a 6.8 percent gain last year over 2001 results, according to ShopperTrak, which tallies sales at 30,000 retail outlets.

For Friday and Saturday combined, total sales were up 5.4 percent, totaling $12.4 billion, ShopperTrak said Monday.

Niemira said he still forecasts a sales gain of 4.5 percent for the November-December period, the best performance since 1999, when sales rose 5.4 percent. He based the estimate on sales from stores open at least a year, considered the best indicator of a retailer's health.

Last holiday season's results were unchanged from 2001.

While the Thanksgiving weekend starts the shopping spree, it no longer is the busiest period of the season. The busiest day over the past few years has been the Saturday before Christmas.

The weekend's business is also not a gauge of how the rest of the season will fare. Last year, stores enjoyed a robust Thanksgiving weekend, but sales then began to deteriorate.

There were other indications that overall, it was a good weekend:

  • Online sales had a strong showing on Friday. Research firm comScore Networks Inc., reported online sales rose 38 percent to $200 million on Friday from $145 million a year ago.
  • Visa USA said total U.S. spending on Visa credit and debit cards on Friday and Saturday rose 12 percent over the same period last year.
  • Wal-Mart said it hit a single-day company sales record on Friday, taking in more than $1.52 billion nationally, up 6.3 percent from $1.43 billion for the day after Thanksgiving a year ago.
  • Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers, which owns or manages 31 shopping centers in 13 states, said stores reported more customers were paying full prices. A sampling of stores showed that on Friday and Saturday, business was up in the mid-single digits from a year earlier.Jane Howard was at a mall in Cambridge, Mass., on Sunday with her daughter. The day before, the two snapped up some "tremendous deals," such as sweaters reduced by 40 percent, at another mall, Howard said."I'm enjoying shopping this year," she said. "I feel like I've got enough money. I'm very happy because I've been in my job for a year."
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