NEW YORK - The nation's shoppers set aside worries about higher gas prices and a slumping housing market and proved their resilience over the Thanksgiving weekend, giving what the nation's merchants wished for — a strong start to the holiday shopping season.
Stores and malls opened the season as early as midnight, drawing bigger-than-expected crowds Friday for discounted flat-panel TVs, digital cameras and toys such as all things related to Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana." Strong sales continued through Saturday, according to one research group that tracks total sales at retail outlets across the country.
Clearly, the biggest draw was electronics, benefiting consumer electronics chains like Best Buy Co. and discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. Popular-priced department stores including J.C. Penney Co. and Kohl's Corp. drew in crowds with good deals. Toy stores like Toys "R" Us Inc. fared well too. Still, apparel sales appeared to be mixed at mall-based clothing stores, though a cold weather snap helped spur sales of outerwear and other winter-related items.
"This was a really good start. ... There seemed to be a lot of pent-up demand," said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak RCT Corp., which tracks total sales at more than 50,000 retail outlets. ShopperTrak reported late Sunday that sales on Friday and Saturday combined rose 7.2 percent to $16.4 billion from the same two-day period a year ago.
Total sales on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, rose to $10.3 billion, up 8.3 percent from the same day a year ago. Martin had expected increases no greater than 5 percent.
Meanwhile, Internet research firm comScore Inc. reported a 22 percent gain in online sales on the day after Thanksgiving compared with the same day a year ago and estimated online sales would exceed $700 million online Monday, the official kickoff to the online shopping season.
The signs were encouraging, but stores are now wondering whether bargain hunters will keep up the pace as they face an escalating credit crunch, depreciating home values and rising daily living expenses.
Frederick Crawford, managing director at AlixPartners, a turnaround consulting company, said that amid economic challenges, people are buying fewer gifts.
"Clearly, it was mission-based shopping," Crawford said. "People had their list, and they were very specific in what they were looking for."
Consumers were out looking for bargains.
"The bargains are better this
year, a lot better," said Theresa Calib, of Houston, Texas, who was at the local Greenspoint mall Saturday. "We always know what we want to get, and we get it." She noted she took advantage of Foot Locker Inc.'s two pairs for $89 sale.
I'm trying to get everything done, and I did it," said Pat Marcantonio, of Wakefield, R.I., who returned Saturday to the Warwick Mall after braving the crowds Friday morning.
Marcantonio also shopped for herself Saturday, loading up a Bath & Body Works bag full of frosted cranberry and sweet pea lotions. Bath & Body Works was offering select gift sets at 30 percent off.
Meanwhile, in downtown Philadelphia, Barbara McGlade, of Wyndmoor, Pa., had picked up deals on fleece clothing at Modell's, with prices marked down from $29.99 to about $15.
"If I see something now, I'll pick it up," McGlade said. "You don't know if you'll see it again."
The nation's stores worked hard to lure shoppers with expanded hours, including midnight openings, and a blitz of early morning specials Friday. J.C. Penney and Kohl's opened at 4 a.m., an hour earlier than a year ago.
Many stores were also more focused on discounting products that they knew shoppers wanted. Gail Lavielle, a spokeswoman at Sears Holding Corp., which operates Kmart and Sears stores, said it zeroed in on great deals on electronics, instead of offering deep discounts on a wide range of products. Still, analysts say frustrations were high across among shoppers who couldn't get their hands on limited deals at many different stores.
Lavielle noted that the turnout Friday was better than a year ago, and customer flow was steady throughout the weekend. Both Kmart and Sears sold out a significant inventory of its flat-panel TVs. Other hot items were Global Positioning System receivers, game consoles like the hard-to-find Nintendo Wii, and digital cameras.
Toys "R" Us chairman and CEO Jerry Storch said the toy seller drew a strong turnout Friday for its 101 early morning specials. He said that he was pleased with traffic on Saturday and Sunday as well.
"This was a robust start to the holiday season," Storch said. Popular items included anything related to Disney's hot franchises "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical," video games, consoles, an interactive parrot from Hasbro Inc., and radio-controlled helicopters and planes.
In a statement Saturday, J.C. Penney reported "strong performance across all merchandise categories," including fine jewelry, outerwear, and young men's and children's assortments.
Wally Brewster, senior vice president of marketing and communications for General Growth Properties Inc., which operates more than 220 malls in 44 states, estimated that sales rose 2.5 percent for the weekend compared with a year ago, in line with projections. Electronic items were extremely popular, but he added that the cold weather helped spur sales of fleece outerwear and other winter items.
Karen MacDonald, spokeswoman at Taubman Centers, which operates 24 malls across 11 states, estimated that business was up anywhere from mid to high single digits Friday, while sales Saturday increased by as much as the mid-single digits.
Both Macerich Co. and Simon Property Group reported strong sales at malls across the country over the weekend.
Despite a decent showing, many shoppers interviewed said they planned to curb their spending.
Earl Lee, a mechanic from Live Oak, Fla., who was shopping in Tallahassee, said that he was planning on spending less this holiday season.
"Gas prices, everything's so high," he added.
John Muller, of Clifton, N.J., who was standing outside Macy's Herald Square in Manhattan on Sunday, said he plans to spend only about $500 this year, half as much as a year ago, because of higher expenses and worries about the economy.
This year, "we are mostly buying for the kids," said Muller, who has two children, ages 3 and 7.
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