Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 12 News List

A not so hot start to holiday shopping in the US

Unseasonably warm weather, a paucity of big bargains and the lack of a 'cool' toy made for limited sales

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

Shoppers clog the aisles at Macy's Department store in New York City on Friday. The day after Thanksgiving, known as ``Black Friday,'' traditionally kicks off to the Christmas shopping season in the US.

PHOTO: AFP

Holiday shoppers, intent on bargains, descended on America's malls on Friday, but spent only slightly more than they did last year, according to reports from retailers and analysts who closely track traffic and sales.

The weather did not help, with seeping skies or drenching rains -- and an occasional dusting of snow - throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Still, shoppers, expecting early-bird specials, lined up at discounters like Target and Wal-Mart, waiting for US$9.99 CD players and US$44.99 DVD players. But by 11am, most of the specials had ended -- and cars were pulling out of the lots.

After a surge in economic growth in the third quarter, some retailers clearly were hoping for a record-breaking opening day for this year's gift-giving season. At American Girl Place in Chicago, workers had strung ropes outside, as if expecting massive crowds. But shortly after noon, there was no line, and the number of shop-pers swinging shopping bags along nearby Michigan Avenue seemed much like that of a normal Saturday to merchants interviewed there.

Overall, the turnout on Black Friday (an industry term for the day after Thanksgiving, when sales results for the year, hopefully, cross from red into black) was deemed "good, but not spectacular," by Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, a trade group based in Washington.

"It's a return to normalcy," she said Friday. "We usually expect a 4 to 6 percent increase, and we are projecting 5.7 percent for the holidays. After what we've seen today, there's no reason to change our estimate -- in fact, even with the messy weather, there were a lot of people carrying shopping bags."

Last year, shoppers spent only 2.1 percent more than they did in 2001.

Sales for the entire holiday season were predicted to be stronger than last year's -- the average consumer will spend US$671 this year, compared to US$648 last year, according to federation estimates -- but Americans are still spending conservatively, Mullin said.

Other industry experts blamed everything from unseasonably warm weather, which cooled off sales of sweaters and winter jackets, to the uncertainty of US involvement in Iraq, to, of course, Friday's rainstorms.

On Friday afternoon, Mullin said she would stick by her group's estimate on Wednesday of a 5 percent increase in mall traffic from last year, "and we all know what a disaster last year was."

More definitive numbers on sales, in stores and online, won't be available until later in the weekend.

Some shoppers, like Omar Forbes, 26, who lives in the Bronx and works for a trucking com-pany, were ecstatic over the early specials. Maneuvering a shopping cart full of US$44.99 DVD players into the check-out line at Best Buy, Forbes said he shopped Friday because he was looking for bargains: "If a name brand is on sale, I hop on it."

Yet even in the sale-packed morning hours, not everyone was thrilled.

At a Best Buy in Manhattan at 8am, Rose Castro couldn't be persuaded to buy a Sony stereo on sale for US$199.

"This is not a sale," Castro announced to her son, Marcus, 18, with an aside to a reporter: "He's going home to bed."

Many shoppers at department stores found bargain offerings to be far less spectacular than in the past, even at stores like Macy's, which traditionally run big sales the day after Thanksgiving.

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