Consumers Hit the Stores as Holiday Shopping Season Looks Brighter

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Early-bird specials and marketing efforts helped draw shoppers to stores around the country over the weekend in what retailers hoped would be a momentum-building kickoff to the holiday shopping season.


America's Research Group said customer traffic in malls on Friday increased 25 percent to 30 percent over last year and sales were up the same, The New York Times reported over the weekend.


Sears, Roebuck and Co. said traffic at its stores nationwide Friday was "equal to or better than last year," spokeswoman Peggy Palter told the Chicago Sun-Times.


People also were out in force in Freeport, ME, home of L.L. Bean and dozens of outlet stores, according to wire reports. The Freeport Merchants Association said the streets were crowded with shoppers and most parking lots were filled.


Kmart Corp. offered round-the-clock discounts and stayed open for a 72-hour period between Friday and Sunday for the second straight year. The bankrupt retailer needs a strong holiday season as it fights to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy by next summer.


Staying in step with its risqué quarterly magalogs, Abercrombie & Fitch hired scantily-clad models to greet customers at its stores.


However, illustrating how tough this holiday season will be, FAO Inc. warned Friday that sluggish consumer spending will cause it to miss its 2002 forecasts.


Companies are expected to announce their sales figures for November later this week, along with sales for the weekend.


Merchants call the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" because it's the day on which they expect to move their books out of the deficit "red" and into the profitable "black." The holiday season accounts for half of retailers' annual sales and profit. But Thanksgiving fell a week later than usual this year. This year's shopping period is the shortest in years, with just 26 days to shop compared to 32 last year.


Though sales improved in October, they did so after disappointments in August and September. Experts now say consumers will spend because disposable income has increased and refinancing has put more money into consumers' pockets.


"I think the sales numbers will be good," said National Retail Federation spokesman Scott Krugman. "Consumers have been coming out of their shells, and consumer confidence is going up."


A Gallup Poll released Friday showed about one in five shoppers, 19 percent, said they were spending more this year. Twenty-four percent said they were spending less, and 56 percent said they were spending the same.


If history is any indication, Friday wasn't the biggest shopping day of the year. Since 1995, the heaviest shopping day has been in mid-December, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. During that time, Black Friday has never been higher than fifth on its list of biggest shopping days.


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