NEW YORK – The holiday shopping season got off to a flying start Friday but consumers mainly snapped up bargains, not full-priced goods, and buying faded by the end of the week, fueling retailers' expectations for a solid — not spectacular — Christmas.
Big chains including J.C. Penney Co. (JCP) and Sears, Roebuck and Co. (S) were pleased with their sales. But Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) was less fortunate — the industry leader said its sales in the seven days that ended Friday were disappointing, and the company lowered its sales forecasts for November. The holiday shopping season traditonally begins the day after Thanksgiving.
"Friday overall was strong, but Saturday was weak and disappointing, so together it was only a modest two-day performance," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers (search). "Still, I continue to believe that this is not a bellwether for how the season will end up."
Consumers were clearly hunting for good deals.
"I want a flat-screen TV to put in the family room," said Gladys Wright, from Elkton, Md., who was among the crowds outside the FAO Schwarz store in Manhattan on Saturday.
"I am looking around at Wal-Mart and other places, but don't want to spend more than $2,000."
Christian Lalonde, from the Los Angeles suburb of Los Feliz, who was shopping at the local Glendale Galleria on Saturday, said he's "focused on getting the right things."
"At a more expensive store you can get one shirt, but you can get two or three at another store. I'd rather have one of quality than two or three that are not as nice," he added.
Niemira said discounters are likely to have a hard time this holiday season because the lower-end customer has been the most hurt by rising gasoline prices. Luxury stores are expected to do the best, and "everything in the middle is anybody's game," he said.
A shopper's own job security is often the greatest factor in how much is spent.
"I'll probably spend a little more, because my husband's getting paid more," said Elda Hooper, who was shopping for games for the Xbox console with her daughter Tina Darnell, at a Toys R Us Inc. (TOY) store in Orlando, Fla.
The first weekend of the season, while important, is not as critical as the last 10 days before Christmas. So, despite the lackluster start, Niemira still forecasts a sales gain of 3 percent to 4 percent for holiday period.
The National Retail Federation (search), the leading retail industry group, said 133 million Americans from a population of 291 million hit the stores over Thanksgiving weekend, the official start to the holiday season, spending $22.8 billion.
The NRF, in its first survey of this kind for one of the year's biggest shopping weekends, said electronics, clothing and music were in hot demand, boosted by heavy discounting.
The NRF, like most analysts, expects lower sales growth this holiday season than last year, when Americans had banked tax rebates. With high oil prices and lingering economic uncertainties worrying some consumers, particularly lower income earners, the expectation is that shoppers will keep a close watch on their wallets.
"We got a strong weekend, but this is a marathon, and the weeks before and after Christmas will be key for retailers," said NRF Vice President Scott Krugman.
Wally Brewster, spokesman at Chicago-based General Growth Properties (search), which operates 224 malls in 44 states, said sales and traffic were strong on Friday, but "stabilized" the rest of the weekend. As a result, he expects sales for the weekend to increase in the low single digits, in line with modest expectations.
Wal-Mart's holiday weekend sales suffered because it didn't offer the deep discounts it did in past years, hoping to boost profits, analysts said. Penney and Sears did better by wooing customers with two days of big price breaks.
"Wal-Mart was a big loser because they didn't get the same numbers of early bird shoppers as they did a year ago," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C. "The retailers that won this weekend were the ones that were super aggressive in special purchases and special pricing."
Wal-Mart said Saturday it now expects same-store sales in November to be up only 0.7 percent, instead of the projected 2 percent to 4 percent.
Without any must-haves in apparel and toys, the main attractions were electronics, particularly flat-screen TVs and DVD players, benefiting stores like Best Buy Co. Inc. (BBY) and Circuit City Stores Inc (CC). Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y., suspects that many mall-based apparel retailers "took it on the chin."
Niemira, who serves as an adviser for ShopperTrak (search), which tallies sales results from 30,000 outlets, said a clearer picture of how the Thanksgiving weekend fared will emerge Thursday. That's when the nation's retailers report their same-store sales figures for November. Same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, are considered the best indicator of a retailer's performance.
Total retail sales were up 10.8 percent on Friday compared to the day after Thanksgiving last year, but dropped 6.5 percent on Saturday compared to a year ago, ShopperTrak said. As a result, total sales for Friday and Saturday combined increased a modest 3.5 percent. ShopperTrak is expected to release sales for the three-day weekend later Monday.
Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers (search), which own or manages 22 shopping centers across the country, said sales and traffic this weekend should be better than expected, based on a spotcheck of 10 malls. On Friday, business was up in the mid-single digits, better than anticipated. On Saturday, sales met projections, with stores reporting sales were anywhere from unchanged to up mid single digits.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.