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Let the Holiday Buying Frenzy Begin

Retail: What slump? Lured by discounts and promotions--and bucking experts' projections-- shoppers descend on after-Thanksgiving sales.


Crowds gathered at stores nationwide Friday for the traditional after-Thanksgiving Day sales, offering a bit of hope to retailers who slashed prices and staged elaborate promotions to turn around months of sluggish sales.

"I was apprehensive about today, but turns out it was unfounded because it's going to be spectacular," said Jeremiah J. Sullivan, Macy's West chairman and chief executive. "October was a very good month for us and the first part of November was good as well, then after the election we saw a softening right up through Wednesday."

Nonetheless, retailers this year face many difficulties, not the least of which is having to follow 1999's record-setting holiday sales.

This year, economists and financial analysts have warned that higher interest rates, stock market volatility, increased energy costs and a cyclical slowdown in consumer spending are likely to mean at best a modest gain in retail sales.

What's more, retailers are facing wide consumer indifference, with no "must-have" product to drive customers into stores the way Pokemon toys and millennium memorabilia did in 1999.

The only truly "hot" toy, PlayStation 2, is mostly unavailable, since parts shortages forced manufacturer Sony to cut production in half.

At the same time, the few popular products are ubiquitous, with discounters and small retailers challenging specialty stores by offering scooters, electronic dogs and leather apparel in every price range.

"This Thanksgiving weekend will be an even lower percentage of total sales than last year," said John Konarski, of the International Council of Shopping Centers. "The trend over the last three years has been for the holiday weekend to account for a bit less each time."

Internet shoppers are at least part of the reason. Consumers with the after-Thanksgiving Day shopping habit went online Friday in droves, even without some of the special prizes and prices.

Sean Kaldor, NetRatings' vice president of e-commerce, said that even after a slow start in November, the number of Internet visitors to shopping sites has increased 29%.

Long since passed over as the biggest shopping day of the year--last year, one trade group pegged the day after Thanksgiving as the eighth-largest sales day--the days just after the holiday continue to matter as an early barometer of the public's economic mood. And above all, shoppers Friday were mostly in the mood for a bargain.

Sisters Rosa, Alex and Adriana Ortiz--the first in line at Toys R Us in Burbank--waited three hours for the store to open at 6 a.m. Clad in sweats and tennis shoes, each had her own shopping cart and a cup of coffee.

As soon as the doors opened, the three sisters raced to the back of the store, where the sale items were placed, and headed for the Pacific Cycle bike, Barbie dolls and scooters.

"Now that you have the economy that isn't doing so great, you have to go for the best sales," said Alex Ortiz, a health teacher in Slymar. "Even if that means getting up at 2 a.m. to save a penny."

They saved more than that. Each spent about $200, about $100 less than they anticipated.

At Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Cerritos, Lakewood resident Bert Lawson's shopping squad included his two sons and his girlfriend, a nurse who joined him after working the overnight shift.

By 9 a.m., Lawson had two bags filled with apparel for his kids and an assortment of gifts for co-workers.

"I want a staple gun, an air pump and whatever tools I can get for half off," said Lawson, who was rushing to take advantage of Sears' early-bird pricing. "We split up and we're going to do the whole mall. We'll spend as much time as it takes to get it done."

Mike Perez of Anaheim tried to be first in line for bargains at Wal-Mart by getting there at 3 a.m.--to no avail. Another shopper beat him to it.

But with sister Claudia Perez directing on her cell phone, various members of the family were still able to claim 16 television sets, 10 DVD players, two VCRs and an assortment of Lego toys.

At Circuit City in Glendale, the crowds came for $89 DVD players and an Intel Celeron computer package for $949.99 after rebates, said manager Erick Linia.

Norma Bocanegra of Silver Lake, who shopped with her daughter, Tattiana, bought the DVD, but decided against a $39 VCR.

"It's very tempting, but I'm in a little budget situation," said the administrative assistant for Sony who helps prepare contracts for television shows. "I have several thousands of dollars invested in the market that has been volatile lately. It's making me very nervous."

Target Corp. hoped to extend the day-after Thanksgiving Day bargain search by withholding freebies at Target stores--a limited edition Matchbox car and a Barbie-themed camera--until this morning. "Everyone's always fighting for Friday's guests, so we're doing something a little bit different," said Tim Kindig, manager of the Target Greatland store in Costa Mesa, which opened in October.

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