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Sales Over Holiday Meet Expectations of Retailers : Stores: However, department store officials say they weren’t expecting “gangbuster business” to begin with.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the apparent sluggish kick-off of the traditional holiday shopping season, several of the nation’s largest retailers said Sunday that Thanksgiving weekend business had met their admittedly conservative expectations.

“We’re not disappointed,” said a spokesman for Dayton-Hudson Corp., the operator of Mervyn’s, Target stores and two Midwestern department store chains. “But we planned conservatively. We weren’t expecting gangbuster business.”

J. C. Penney Co., Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Carter Hawley Hale Stores, operator of the Broadway department stores, issued similar assessments.

However, analysts said that while sales nationwide may be meeting retailers’ reduced expectations, California’s weekend holiday sales were lagging the pack.

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“Business has been slow,” said Richard Giss, a retail analyst with Deloitte & Touche in Los Angeles. “It’s been real easy for the customer to shop--easy to get a parking spot, easy to get down the aisles and easy to check out at the cash register. All in all, it has the look of a disappointing start here.”

None of the nation’s retailers released actual sales figures for the holiday weekend, although several said the information would be available later this week. Many analysts interpreted the retailers’ refusal to release early sales data to their concern that the lackluster results would confirm the worst fears of already-jittery consumers.

“There’s no percentage in their telling the public how slow Christmas shopping is before they have to,” one analyst said. “It’s just not to their advantage.”

Other analysts speculated that retailers themselves may have undercut the strength of the traditional post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping period by starting their Christmas promotions and price discounting in October and early November.

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In general, retailers and analysts agreed that holiday shopping started earlier this year than in previous years, and that consumers--skittish about the nation’s weak economy and their own job security--have been cautious, price-conscious and highly attuned to sales and other special promotions.

They have also been sticking to practical gifts such as clothing and kitchen gadgets.

“This Christmas, for the first time in 10 years, will be characterized by practical, practical, practical gifts,” said Kurt Barnhard, publisher of a New York retailing newsletter.

J. C. Penney Co. Inc. said sales were stronger than anticipated this weekend, while Sears, Roebuck & Co. said business was as expected. Home furnishings retailer Pier 1 Imports Inc. and toy retailer Child World Inc. said they were pleased with their sales.

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“Business was good all over,” said Duncan Muir, a Penney’s spokesman. “Friday was really much better than expected.”

At Sears, the post-Thanksgiving sales “met our expectations,” said Matt Howard, Sears’ senior vice president for marketing. “On balance, we’re quite pleased with the entire weekend.”

Dayton Hudson said sales were better than expected at the company’s Dayton’s, Hudson’s and Marshall Field department stores and at its Mervyn’s clothing stores.

However, business was slower at its Target discount stores.

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But the retailers acknowledged that they have lowered their expectations for the season in response to a persistently weak economy, particularly in Southern California where layoffs in the aerospace, banking, insurance and real estate industries continue.

“We planned for a difficult environment, planned for consumer confidence to remain low and we were aggressive going in,” Sears’ Howard said.

Most retailers, including Macy’s, Broadway, Bullocks and May Co., worked hard to get customers to buy this weekend, offering widespread discounts and other specials.

At Dayton Hudson, “People are buying what we’re promoting,” spokeswoman Ann Barkelew said.

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Despite the early discounts, analysts said they expect retailers to continue cutting prices if consumers don’t respond quickly and in large numbers.

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