NEW YORK – The nation's retailers had a modest start to the holiday shopping season as consumers jammed stores on Black Friday in higher numbers than a year ago, but seemed to lose interest once the early-bird specials were over.
"There was a lot of hype, a lot of promotions and lot of people, but the results were on the lukewarm side," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, estimating that the weekend's sales were down from a year ago.
Analysts said there was heavy shopper traffic for the day after Thanksgiving — known as Black Friday because the surge of shoppers supposedly pushes stores into profitability for the year. But consumers apparently lost their enthusiasm.
"If you give Americans a bargain, they will get up whatever time to take advantage of it. But I don't think this weekend turned out to be as big as retailers hoped," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), which stumbled in the 2004 holiday season by not offering enough discounts, was back in the game, attracting hordes of shoppers in the pre-dawn hours Friday with discounted TVs and DVD players. Its efforts appeared to have paid off; it reported better-than expected sales Friday and estimated that November sales at stores open at least a year would be up 4.3 percent.
J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (JCP) said traffic and sales over the weekend were better than expected, but didn't give details. Toys R Us Inc. (TOY)spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh said the company was pleased with results for the weekend, and cited such best-selling bargains as Mattel Inc.'s Barbie Fashion Mall and MGA's Bratz doll styling head.
Preliminary figures from ShopperTrak RCT Corp. , which monitors sales at more than 45,000 retail outlets, found that business dropped off dramatically on Saturday, resulting in the weekend's results being weaker than a year ago. Actual results for Saturday won't be available until Monday.
The National Retail Federation offered a more upbeat report. According to a survey of 4,209 consumers conducted by Bigresearch on Friday and Saturday, total weekend spending from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday totaled $27.8 billion, a 21.9 percent increase over last year's $22.8 billion. The figures include online spending.
A clearer picture will emerge Thursday, when retailers report sales results for all of November.
While the Thanksgiving weekend marks the official start of the holiday shopping season for stores on land, Monday kicks off the season for online retailers. So far, early signs bode well.
Non-travel online retail sales rose 22 percent to $1.89 billion on Friday, an increase of 22 percent, compared to the day after Thanksgiving a year ago, according to comScore Networks, an Internet research firm.
Yahoo! Shopping reported that the number of visits to its site rose 52 percent on Friday, better than the 30 percent jump expected.
Forecasts for holiday shopping have improved in recent weeks amid declining gasoline prices. But gas is still more expensive than this time last year, and shoppers face higher heating bills this winter. Given such challenges, stores tried to lure shoppers with more enticing bargains, expanded hours on Friday and other gimmicks.
But many shoppers were budgeting in the early going.
At a Target (TGT) store in Warwick, R.I., Dwight Garrett was pleased with a DVD player, marked down to $29.97 from $44.99.
"You can't beat the price," said Garrett, who had traveled with his wife from Plainfield, Conn., to shop at Target, Penney and other stores along a road of big-box outlets in Warwick.
Others weren't satisfied with the discounts.
"There's nothing special about the deals. They're the same as any other weekend sale," said Nikhilesh Agarwal of York, Pa., who was shopping at Towson Town Center in Towson, Md.