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Christmas Shoppers Go For Bargains Nation’s Stores, Malls Packed In First Days Of Buying Season

Shoppers packed the nation’s stores and malls in the first days of the holiday buying season, but many went straight for sale racks and bought only when the price was right.

Stores that offered deep discounts and low prices fared best over the Thanksgiving weekend, retailers said Sunday.

“Christmastime is no different than the rest of the year,” said Kurt Barnard, a retail consultant and president of Barnard’s Retail Trend Report. “Shoppers want to get more for their money, so they favor stores that offer the best prices.”

Despite mediocre sales for much of this year, retailers are optimistic about this Christmas season. But many are finding they must go to great lengths to lure in shoppers.

Many stores unlocked their doors before dawn Friday, while others stayed open 24 hours a day. Some offered discounts to early morning arrivals - as much as 50 percent.

Discounters and moderately priced department stores like Wal-Mart, Target and Sears drew in flocks of consumers with special promotions, good prices and wide selections.

“The big deals offered early Friday drove in shoppers,” said Ken Volk, marketing director for mall developer Simon DeBartolo Group in the New York City area. “We had hundreds of people on line at many of our malls before 7 a.m.”

But, he added, that they “didn’t see that same early rush on Saturday.”

Many stores reported slower sales as the weekend progressed, with more people browsing than buying. Shoppers used to make most of their holiday purchases over Thanksgiving weekend, but now more favor the days before Christmas, when stores slash prices to clear out inventories.

“The stores were crowded, but we didn’t see people carrying two or three shopping bags,” said John Konarski, vice president of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group. “Many shoppers use this weekend to look for gifts and wait to buy until right before Christmas.”

For many stores, the trend toward a later shopping season is worrisome following a less-than-stellar 1997 and disappointments the last two holiday seasons. Retailers count on the holidays for about half their annual sales and profits.

The slow Thanksgiving weekend was especially damaging to apparel merchants that also had a disappointing fall season.

Still, buyers were seen streaming out of stores this weekend with bags stuffed full of gifts. But many of them were taking full advantage of discounts, meaning smaller receipts for the stores.

Toy stores were packed with shoppers trying to get first crack at the popular holiday picks. Big lines, some running 500 people long, formed at Toys R Us for discounts early Friday.

After the Tickle Me Elmo mania a year ago, many crazed parents wanted to fill their children’s wish lists early in the season. Sesame Street dolls including Sing & Snore Ernie were selling well, as were Barbie dolls, Microsoft’s Actimates Barney and virtual pets.

Also doing well were sales of jewelry, perfume and cosmetics. After a slow 1996 season, there was some buying of electronics, like big-screen TVs, stereos and camcorders.

While apparel was generally weak at many stores, some specific products did particularly well. Fleece jackets and accessories were big sellers at catalog retailer Lands’ End and Target discount stores.


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