On big weekend, a gift to retailers

Times Staff Writer

Holiday shoppers came out early and spent big across the nation this weekend, merchants said Sunday, as Internet sellers geared up for an expected surge in sales today.

Christmas continued to look merry for most retailers, with 140 million people braving crowded stores during the Thanksgiving weekend, the traditional beginning of holiday shopping, according to the National Retail Federation.

Buyers spent an average of $360.15, 18.9% more than last year, the federation said. Among other things, they were encouraged by deals on big-ticket electronics, including DVD players, high-definition televisions and new video game consoles.

That included Britt Nicol, a 21-year-old from Studio City who picked up a combination DVD-VCR at Best Buy in West Hollywood. It was a present from her mother, who was here visiting from South Carolina.

"The crowds drive me nuts," said Nicol, who nonetheless estimated that she and her mother spent $500 over the weekend to outfit her new apartment. "I can't focus on anything, there's just people everywhere."

Despite the jump in average sales during the weekend -- probably the result of shoppers responding to Thanksgiving discounts and promotions -- analysts still mostly expect only a modest sales gain this holiday season.

Today, Internet shopping sites are counting on consumers taking advantage of high-speed connections at their workplaces. Nearly 61 million people plan to shop online at home or at work today, the retail federation said, as part of what's billed as Cyber Monday.

Web sales are expected to reach $32 billion in 2006, an 18% increase over last year, according to a report by Jupiter Research. A report by the Atlas Institute found that Tuesday, Dec. 13, was the peak last year.

Many online shoppers didn't wait. On the day after Thanksgiving, auction giant EBay recorded more than 2,500 sales of the hard-to-find TMX Elmo toy and scores of iPod nanos.

Gerald Lissick, a Walt Disney Co. project manager who lives in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, expects to add to Amazon.com's sales this season.

He spends most of his holiday budget, which is likely to reach about $500 this year, online.

"I have more people to buy for," he said. "I'll be glad when it's over."

Over the weekend, many retailers were optimistic. J.C. Penney Co. and Federated Department Stores Inc. pronounced the season off to a strong start.

Macerich Co., a Santa Monica-based owner of about 80 malls nationwide, said early openings and special promotions helped. "Shoppers appeared to be in a very good mood and spending lots," said Garry Butcher, Macerich's vice president of research.

For some, the crowds, long checkout lines and parking-lot chaos at the stores during the Thanksgiving weekend are all part of the fun.

Susana Montes, 22, led her 2-year-old daughter and husband to the Glendale Galleria on Friday, Target on Saturday and Eagle Rock Plaza on Sunday.

"This is the best time of the year to shop," said Montes, who lives in the Mid-Wilshire area. "It's like this every weekend during the holidays. I look for any reason to shop."

The National Retail Federation maintained its estimate that consumers will spend $457.4 billion during the holidays this year, 5% more than 2005. That would trail last year's 6.1% rise in sales.

Although the days after Thanksgiving aren't necessarily predictive of how retailers will fare during the season, Jackie Fernandez, an executive at Deloitte & Touche, said the healthy start she saw at local stores was good news.

"The weekend as a whole came out a lot better than a lot of people thought," said Fernandez, who staked out malls over the weekend to observe the action.

Already, some hot toys sold out at many stores across the country, including KidTough digital cameras from Mattel's Fisher-Price division, Nintendo's Wii video game console and Hasbro Inc.'s FurReal Friends Butterscotch Pony.

Discounters maintained their position as the most popular shopping destinations during the weekend, NRF said. But their share of traffic fell substantially, to 49.4% from 60.7% a year earlier.

Despite discounts on hundreds of products that began as early as October, Wal-Mart said over the weekend that November sales in stores open at least a year were below last year's numbers.

The company, which will report sales data this week, estimated that business eased 0.1% in the month, slightly below its earlier projection of an even comparison.

Eve Newhart, 39, made her first shopping outing of the weekend Sunday, spending $444 at a Toys R Us on La Cienega Boulevard. She previously shopped online but didn't want to wade through a flurry of packages, she said.

"I've never done this before and never been to Toys R Us before," Newhart said, as she tried to hang on to 4-year-old Caroline and maneuver a shopping cart full of playthings through the checkout line.

For 28-year-old Janine Scalise and her mother, Laura Keenan, shopping during the Thanksgiving weekend is part of a long-standing tradition.

Keenan, 58, who was visiting from New York, said the pair shop for and exchange Christmas presents during the weekend. That way neither has to try to drag wrapped presents to New York for the holiday.

"It's all about now," Scalise joked, as she prodded her mother to test a $120 Nikon digital camera at a Hollywood Best Buy.

"We just came in here because we knew there were going to be sales."

The day before, Keenan found her daughter a signed print of the Brooklyn Bridge at Crate & Barrel in the Grove shopping center. Price: $279.

The cash dropped during the weekend was just a portion of the $1,000 each expected to spend this year on Christmas gifts and other holiday merchandise.

Montes, for her part, said she hoped she wouldn't spend as much as last year, $500.

But as she handed her daughter a Dora the Explorer talking van -- not a Christmas present, just "a little something" -- she meekly acknowledged that she couldn't promise to spend less.

"If I get good deals, I take it," Montes said. "I don't really like budgets."



Times staff writer Alana Semuels contributed to this report.

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