Shoppers Still Flock to Stores

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A conservative spending attitude was typical of shoppers who were hitting the malls in search of bargains on Black Friday, the official start of the holiday gift-grabbing season.

Edgy over job security and political uncertainties, many consumers said they planned to keep the purse strings a bit tighter through this year's holiday season. And retailers are worried that this may lead to their worst holiday sales in a decade.

An example of the new breed of consumer is Ann Branno, who looks like a shop-'til-you drop customer at first glance. As the shopping rush began, she joined the packs of customers rushing San Diego's outdoor Fashion Valley mall and had a bag filled with tennis shoes, books and Harry Potter calendars by 11 a.m.

But despite appearances, Branno of Carlsbad, N.M., was quick to say the phrase retailers hate to hear: "I just don't feel the need to spend more."

That worry translates into good news for consumers, who are seeing unusually deep discounts.

"This is the year of the shopper," said Jeff Feiner, managing director of investment firm Lehman Brothers.

The National Retail Federation predicts holiday retail sales, excluding restaurant and auto sales, will be 2.5 percent to 3 percent higher than the $201 billion registered last year. That would be the worst growth in revenue since 1990, when sales were virtually unchanged.

Last year, sales were up a modest 3.9 percent from 1999.

Analysts also expect limited growth in Internet-based sales, at least compared with the explosive growth of recent years. Still, some prominent Internet retailers were reporting strong early results., the bellwether of Internet retailing, reported that 12,000 more items were ordered per hour on Friday than the day after Thanksgiving last year, according to spokeswoman Kristin Schaefer.

At Yahoo! Shopping, sales were up 60 percent on Friday from a year ago, according to Robert Solomon, vice president and general manager.

Many mall operators and brick-and-mortar stores, including Sears and KB Toys, reported that the turnout of early morning shoppers was up from past years.

In a scene played out across the country, 300 people lined up outside a Toys R Us store in Little Rock, Ark., before the doors opened at 6 a.m. In the crowd was Elizabeth Phifer, who was in search of a Diva Starz stuffed dog for her 8-year-old daughter.

"I'm way back here at the end of the line and I'm nervous I'm not going to get it," Phifer said.

At a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma City, Steve Estepp unloaded board games, Barbie accessories and kids' clothes from a packed cart into the back of his pickup truck. "This is one stop of many," he said.

In Diamondville, Wyo., business at Alco Discount Store was "off and on" as the holiday buying season got under way, manager Chris Toebes said.

"We don't have as much traffic, but what they are buying are the higher dollar items," she said. "They're buying the TVs, VCRs and furniture."

Most shoppers seemed indifferent to stores' increased security, which was stepped up amid concerns about terrorism.

The Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan have also had another effect on the holiday shopping season — patriotism.

Across the country, stores were stocked with ornaments, calendars and other items with American themes. And many shoppers, including Michelle Smith of San Francisco, were heeding calls by government officials who say spending money will help the troubled economy.

"I'm definitely shopping this year to help the country," Smith said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.