Holiday shopping off to so-so start

Stores in Md., nation ahead of projected 2% gain over 2000

November 27, 2001|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The holiday sales season began with the weakest showing in a decade, but one with which many retailers were happy.

TeleCheck Services Inc., which tracks retail sales through checks consumers write, reported that sales nationwide the day after Thanksgiving were 2.4 percent above those of a year ago, and up 2.7 percent in Maryland.

Although the figures were hardly robust, they topped an even more lackluster 2 percent increase that had been predicted for the 32-day holiday season - a critical time for retailers that can bring in one-third of their yearly sales.

"That would be the lowest increase in a decade," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation. "Considering the circumstances, any increase is welcome. We'll take it."

There were exceptions. Discount giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. posted its best Friday ever, as shoppers looked for bargains and steered away from the malls.

Krugman said many retail analysts do not expect a banner year in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And with the economy in a recession and people fearful they will lose their jobs, industry experts believe that most consumers will be tight-fisted. Krugman said shoppers are taking advantage of sales, which have been heavily promoted this year.

"It's about the promotions, the discounts," he said. "This year every retailer is a discount retailer. It's been the most heavily promoted we've seen. It started earlier and at a higher clip. Retailers have done a pretty good job at it. Consumer confidence may be down, but they recognize a good bargain when they see it."

That translated into good sales for Wal-Mart and Kohl's Corp., another clothing and home items discounter, according to Steven B. Green- berg, president of the Greenberg Group, a Hewlett, N.Y.-based adviser to retailers.

Where consumers shop is as important as what they are shopping for, he said. Mall attendance is way down, and luxury items are not hot this year.

Greenberg said the big discounters tend to have locations close to residential neighborhoods, and consumers believe that they are getting a good value for their dollar.

Also, the terrorist attacks have caused many people to elect to stay at home and be with their families.

"What they're going for is a comfort level; they're staying closer to home and buying things that have to do with the home," Greenberg said. "Our clients are reporting that home-furnishings business is good. Also doing well are electronics and home appliances."

Where shoppers will spend this year is on toys for their children, he said.

"Many people canceled holiday vacations; seats on planes are going empty; and they're going to make up for it with generosity at the toy level," he said.

Toysrus.com, the toy retailer's online division, reported that traffic on its Web site over the weekend was up almost 30 percent compared with last year, said Jeanne Meyer, vice president of corporate communications.

Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams said toys including Microsoft's X-Box video game player and items from the Monsters, Inc. and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone movies went fast.

Big sellers also included $698 Hewlett-Packard Co. computers with printers, $85 19-inch televisions and a range of DVD/CD players, he said.

Wal-Mart reported sales on Friday were $1.25 billion, up from $1.1 billion last year.

Williams said a special store sale from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Friday contributed to the strong numbers.

"People are shopping. People are value shopping. People are looking for value price and will shop around for it," he said. "Why are they shopping? I haven't heard why. I think there's an attitude that we're going to have Christmas this year."

At the department stores, officials said sales were satisfactory.

Federated Department Stores Inc., the parent of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, said it "was pleased with sales over the weekend, which was a fine start to the holiday season."

The company expected November sales at its stores open at least a year to range from a decline of 2 percent to a gain of 1 percent.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. said sales at stores open at least a year were up slightly on Friday and Saturday compared with last year.

Michael Baker, director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said department stores tend to do much of their business at the end of the holiday season, when they put everything on sale.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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