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Holiday Shoppers Off to a Fast Start

By Michael Barbaro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page A03

Holiday shoppers spent 10 percent more Friday than they did a year ago, according to early reports, but Wal-Mart Stores Inc. dampened hopes for a strong start to the key retail season by slashing its November sales forecast by more than half.

Consumers spent about $8 billion at the nation's malls and stores the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, compared with $7.3 billion a year ago, according to the industry research firm ShopperTrak.

Bonnie Strawbridge takes a break with some of her holiday purchases Saturday at the Towson Town Center mall in Towson, Md. (Gail Burton -- AP)

_____In Today's Post_____
At School, Labels a Runway Hit (The Washington Post, Nov 29, 2004)

Bill Martin, ShopperTrak's founder and executive vice president of sales, called the results "unusually strong" and credited the gain to this year's early-bird deep discounts, which created pre-dawn lines at many stores across the country.

The National Retail Federation trade group said a survey of 4,670 shoppers showed that each spent an average $265 over the weekend. Overall, the federation estimates that U.S. consumers spent $22.8 billion Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which represents 10 percent of the $220 billion expected in holiday sales this year.

But industry bellwether Wal-Mart, which had earlier predicted sales to grow by 2 to 4 percent for November, on Saturday dropped its forecast to a gain of 0.7 percent. The company said sales last week "fell below plan," dragging down the month's results, which should be released within a week.

Analysts have said that consumers who shop at discount stores are still feeling the pinch of rising costs for food and fuel. "They just have less discretionary income this year," said Michael Niemera, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, an industry trade group.

In National Retail Federation's survey, conducted by BIGresearch, found that 61 percent of consumers visited a discount chain over the weekend, compared with 44 percent for department stores and 41 for specialty stores. Thirty percent of those surveyed said they bought products on the Internet over the weekend.

In terms of dollars spent, the Friday after Thanksgiving was the biggest shopping day of the year in 2003, displacing the Saturday before Christmas, which had held the top position since 1999, ShopperTrak said.

Retailers have nicknamed it Black Friday, because the day's sales are supposed to push their stores into the black, or profitability, for the first time all year.

In what has become an annual rite, dozens of retailers try to lure customers with early-morning discounts, such as $24 DVD players and $200 personal computers, with such prices expiring by 10 a.m. or noon.

"Customers have really responded to these promotions," ShopperTrak's Martin said. "They like the early start."

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