NEW YORK (AP) – The 2005 holiday shopping season got off to only a modest start over the Thanksgiving weekend as consumers responded initially to aggressive discounting and then retreated.

Roshan Reddy
Ypsilanti resident Yaneka Mattingly, left, watches her sister load items purchased at Walmart on Friday. (AP PHOTO)

“There was a lot of hype, a lot of promotions and lot of people, but the results were on the lukewarm side,” said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, estimating that the weekend’s sales results were down from a year ago. He said heavy markdowns forced retailers to sell more goods in order to meet sales targets.

Analysts said there was heavy shopper traffic early Friday when stores opened even earlier than usual for the day after Thanksgiving, offering deep, deep discounts. When the early-bird specials were over, consumers 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., 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 also estimated that November sales at stores open at least a year would be up 4.3 percent.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. said that traffic and sales over the weekend were better than expected, but didn’t give details. Toys R Us Inc. 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.

ShopperTrak RCT Corp., which monitors sales at more than 45,000 retail outlets, found that it was a difficult weekend overall. The company said late Saturday that Friday’s sales slipped 0.9 percent to $8 billion, only a small change from a hefty 10.8 percent gain a year earlier. But Niemira, who serves as a consultant to ShopperTrak, said the company’s preliminary figures showed business dropped off dramatically on Saturday, resulting in the weekend’s results being weaker than a year ago.

Actual results for Saturday will be available today, he said.

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.

According to Visa USA, overall sales volume on Visa branded cards for the combined Friday and Saturday period surpassed $7 billion, a 15 percent increase over the year-ago period.

A clearer picture of how the retailers fared over the Thanksgiving weekend will emerge Thursday, when retailers report sales results for all of November.

Forecasts for holiday shopping have improved in recent weeks amid declining gasoline prices. But while gas is cheaper than it was a few months ago, it’s still more expensive than this time last year, and shoppers face higher heating bills this winter. Given such challenges, stores made a concerted effort to lure shoppers with more enticing bargains, expanded hours on Friday and other gimmicks.

But many shoppers were budgeting in the early going.

“I’m just starting, but I don’t have that much shopping this year,” said Vera Raphael, who was buying $25 sweaters at a Sears, Roebuck and Co. store in Orlando, Fla. Saturday. “I have two weddings coming up, so that’s taking up all my money.”

She said gas prices also made her anxious about spending on non-essentials.

At a Target store in Warwick, R.I., Dwight Garrett was pleased with a DVD player, marked down to $29.97 from its listed price of $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.

At a Wal-Mart in Marietta, Ga., Ashif Moore was looking for a small food processor on Saturday and very happy that the crowds had dwindled considerably from the day before. Her aim, like millions of other shoppers during the weekend, was finding what she wanted at the right price.

“We’re always looking for a good deal,” she said.

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