New York The 2005 holiday shopping season got off to only a modest start during the Thanksgiving weekend as consumers responded initially to aggressive discounting and then retreated.
"There was a lot of hype, a lot of promotions and a 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 the weekend's sales results down from a year ago. He said heavy markdowns forced retailers to sell more goods to meet sales targets.
Analysts reported heavy shopper traffic early Friday when stores opened even earlier than usual for the day after Thanksgiving, offering 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.
Stores see bright spots
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 estimated November sales at stores open at least a year would be up 4.3 percent.
J.C. Penney Co. Inc. said traffic and sales during 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 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 Saturday, resulting in the weekend's results being weaker than a year ago.
Actual results for Saturday would not be available until 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 November sales results.
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 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 Saturday in Orlando, Fla. "I have two weddings coming up, so that's taking up all my money."
She said gas prices made her anxious about spending on non-essentials.
Associated Press Writers Harry R. Weber in Atlanta, Travis Reed in Orlando, Fla., and Richard C. Lewis in Providence, R.I., contributed to this report.