By  on November 28, 2005

NEW YORK — Even after a big Black Friday weekend, retailers aren't breathing easy.

Those that made a lot of noise and offered a lot of markdowns did well, with consumers grabbing at early-bird specials, two-for-one deals, apparel and cold weather accessories, and deeply discounted electronics.

In apparel specifically, executives cited strength in contemporary sportswear, juniors, designer accessories, sweaters, celebrity fragrances, and cashmere sweaters, scarves and mufflers. They also credited a high proportion of their sales volume to consumers shopping for themselves, as much as for gifts, and were thankful for wintry temperatures that hit the Northeast.

After a flurry of upbeat news reports on Saturday, with huge crowds on Friday induced by some of the most aggressive pricing seen in years, by Sunday afternoon retailers seemed less euphoric, having time to examine to what degree the big crowds translated into real business.

Though still generally optimistic for a good holiday '05, retailers are up against tough comparisons from a year ago and acknowledge the possibility of a post-Thanksgiving shopping lull as consumers play their usual waiting game, hoping stores panic and slash prices even further.

Adding to the uncertainty, were inconsistent reports regarding Black Friday's outcome from research and industry organizations.

Total spending for the Thursday through Sunday was estimated at $27.8 billion, a 21.9 percent increase over last year's $22.8 billion, according to a poll of 4,209 consumers by BIGresearch, commissioned by the National Retail Federation. But ShopperTrak said Saturday the holiday season got off to a "relatively flat start as compared to 2004, with Black Friday slipping 0.9 percent."

According to the NRF, "the ceremonial kickoff to the holiday season began with a great deal of fanfare, as 145 million shoppers flooded stores and the Internet hunting for popular electronics, clothing, and books." On average, shoppers spent $302.81 over the weekend, the NRF said. No one is taking business for granted, despite the strong turnout nationwide at malls, discount power centers and downtown destinations. As of Sunday, the average person has completed 35.6 percent of their holiday shopping, slightly less than a year ago (36.8 percent). Only one in 13 consumers (7.5 percent) finished their holiday shopping. The NRF projects holiday sales will rise 6 percent this year to $439.5 billion."I was at Garden State Plaza at 7 a.m. on Friday and the crowd was as large as I've ever seen it," said Ron Klein, chairman and chief executive of Macy's East. "It seemed liked it was building all day long. People were in a good mood, but it is a long time between the day after Thanksgiving and December 24." Federated Department Stores, parent of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, projects 1 to 2 percent comp gains for the fourth quarter. (For more on the scene at Garden State Plaza, see opposite page.)

"As expected, retailers offered substantial discounts and savings on Black Friday to bring people into their stores and consumers held up their end of the bargain by going shopping," NRF president and ceo Tracy Mullin said in a statement. "Even though many retailers saw strong sales this past weekend, companies will not be basking in their success. Stores are already warming up for the next four weeks because the holiday season is far from over."

"Sure, anything can happen," in the days ahead, acknowledged Michael Gould, chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale's, However, he said Friday and Saturday were "two big days" and "very strong" with the 59th Street flagship posting double-digit gains on Friday.

Gould and a few other retailers, including Sears, cited some positive trends in hurricane-wracked Florida. "There may be some bounce back there," Gould said. 

"Stores that have reopened in the Gulf Coast are doing well, as people are replacing their wardrobes. The post-storm recovery will probably continue to boost business through spring," said Bob Goodfriend, ceo of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Goody's. "But fuel prices that have been high have also affected middle America, which is our customer." 

Atlantic Station, an 800,000-square-foot retail-entertainment complex that opened in October north of downtown Atlanta, has seen many out-of-state license plates from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, indicating that evacuees are taking up residence temporarily or permanently in the area, said a spokesman.

"People are definitely shopping for deals. They're bargain-conscious," said Randy Blackburn, a Sears, Roebuck store director in Los Angeles."Apparel on a relative basis was better," said Bill Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers. "We're seeing stronger numbers in apparel, though it's not a big weekend for designer concepts. That customer has bought before or will buy later in the season. Designers customers don't necessarily want to be here when it's really busy."

However, Taubman cited stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, J. Crew, Forever 21, and other young apparel chains as being busy. He also mentioned Ann Taylor.

He estimated that sales would be up in the mid-single-digit range, and noted that for the year to date through September, retailers at Taubman malls were up 7.5 percent.

"I think it's going to be fine in the malls this Christmas." At Abercrombie & Fitch, polos and fleece have been strong in men's, while in women's, knit tops, fleece and any fur-lined or fur-trimmed outerwear sells best, according to Tom Lennox, director of corporate communications at the company. Denims are also strong in men's and women's.

According to Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation, 58.9 million consumers are expected to shop online today, in what's known as Cyber Monday, one of the biggest online shopping days of the year.

Here is a breakdown of the weekend's action.

Upscale Stores

Bloomingdale's reported ready-to-wear "spectacular and less promotional than last year," with the store's ceo citing contemporary and designer sportswear, coats, dresses, furs, fine jewelry, designer handbags, women's shoes, and men's wear as top sellers. The store eliminated a DVD promotion and early-bird specials and said it would have a less promotional December compared with last year. The 59th Street flagship had a "solid double-digit" gain Friday. At Bloomingdale's in Lenox Square, Atlanta, premium denim, velvet blazers, designer handbags and Western-style boots were bestsellers, according to a spokeswoman. Seven for All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity, and Rock & Republic were top lines in denim, especially styles with hardware details.

Saks Fifth Avenue appeared more crowded and promotional than a year ago, with early-bird specials and discounting across several categories.At Neiman Marcus Group, customers continued to respond to the top trends of the season, buying long necklaces in jet black, yellow gold jewelry and designer eyewear, particularly sunglasses from Chanel, Gucci, Dior. "Eyewear is hot this season," said Ginger Reeder, vice president of corporate communications. She added, "Anything velvet has been strong, designer handbags continue strong, including Chloé, Fendi, Balenciaga, Gucci and Prada." While the weekend is important, "We don't look at Black Friday like Best Buy," Reeder said. "The luxury shopper typically spreads her buying through the season."

Ylang 23, a designer jewelry store at the Dallas Galleria, racked up a 70 percent gain Friday and Saturday mostly due to Internet sales and phone orders, said Joanne Teichman, owner. Mall traffic also was strong, and she's projecting a 20 percent gain for the season. "It's a glorious mood right now, which is just amazing considering the tragedies and the war going on," she marveled. "I think it's going to be a wonderful season." Bestsellers included bangle bracelets by Me + Ro and Roxanne Assoulin as well as inspirational pendants, such as "I am blessed" from M2 by Mary Margrill.

Fur-trimmed items and pieces with embellishment were sure bets at Seattle-based Nordstrom, said fashion communications director Pamela Perret.

Among the bestsellers were North Face's Metropolis jacket in a shiny chocolate color with faux fur trim for $229, and a Nike reversible quilted vest also with faux fur trim at $175. The Vince cutaway crochet cardigan, $245, and Beth Bowley vintage cashmere cardigan with jewel clasp, $198, were also popular.

"The stores are busy and we're helping a lot of people," said Perret.

Mass Appeal

Sears, Roebuck in Miami reported 220 customers lined up before the 6 a.m. opening, and there was good selling across soft and hard lines. Among the leading sellers were Craftsman cordless drills and mechanic's tool sets, air compressors, high-efficiency washers and dryers, cookware, and personal care products. Fine jewelry was also popular, especially diamonds and gem stones.

Goody's opened stores at 5 a.m., and as early as 4:30 in some locations, with a new promotion this year — a $10 gift card giveaway, which improved early morning traffic Friday, but overall sales were flat with last year. "We're still struggling with the misses' category," said the firm's ceo Goodfriend, who added that key vendors, such as Duckhead and some lines produced by Kellwood haven't performed well this year. Bright spots Friday were basic sweaters, including soft acrylic cardigans, sleeveless mock turtlenecks from private label vendor Designer Originals, and holiday or novelty sweaters, from vendors Tiar, Crystal and Victoria & Co. Juniors, especially skirts, pants and gauchos, and accessories and shoes were all strong, but didn't overcome the softness in misses, said Goodfriend. The weather — from hurricanes to the warm weather this fall — will also affect holiday business, said Goodfriend.

At Target in Gwinnett County, 15 miles northeast of Atlanta, around 60 people lined up before 6 a.m. to take advantage of sales on digital cameras, the new Xbox 360, and other electronics.

Kisha Jones, 25, found work at the Gwinnett Target when she moved to Atlanta, along with 30 family members in September after losing her home in New Orleans' Third Ward. "I've had to replace everything we had, so I'm spending less than half as much on Christmas this year," she said.

At Lenox Square, Sandy Murphy, 40, a data modeler for Delta Airlines, was shopping for gifts, but spending less this year. As she has the past several years, she rose at 4 a.m. to be at Circuit City by 5 a.m. to take advantage of early-morning giveaways, rebates and deep discounts on electronics and software, where she can save around $195.

This year, with bankrupt Delta's future uncertain, Murphy has talked to her son about cutting back on holiday gifts, and she is watching her budget for herself.

"I shop clearance sales and off-season for that," she said. "I'll buy less from my favorite stores — Banana Republic and Coldwater Creek."

At Wal-Mart in Columbus, Ohio, shoppers rushed for toys, electronics, kids' apparel and comfy-cozy basics such as loungewear bottoms and sparkle-accented fleece. The biggest draw was a heavily advertised 15-inch wireless laptop, priced less than $500, which sold out within moments and left some shoppers grousing about the slim supply.

Columbus resident Shirley Ishmael had hoped to secure the low-price laptop for her daughter, but a relative sent out before 5 a.m. to stake out a local Wal-Mart didn't get lucky (he was 20th in line; there were only 10 laptops available.)

Ishmael and her daughter, Connie Sue Hansgen, were in Target at Easton Town Center in Columbus before dawn to score an $84 home theater system, one of the Minneapolis retailer's heavily touted values. Ishmael's $120 tab also had a $44 George Foreman Grill. Her daughter spent more than $600, including two iPods for her children.The parking lot was full Friday morning at Target Greatland in Woburn, Mass., but 90 percent of shoppers were grabbing toys and electronics. The apparel section, while looking trend-right, was jammed with deeply discounted merchandise, including Mossimo faux fur jackets for 50 percent off. Traffic at Target has been slow during November due in part to unseasonably warm weather in the Northeast. Among the markdowns, there were a handful of hot sellers. An Isaac Mizrahi 100 percent cashmere sweater, at $39.99, sold out in all but the largest sizes.

A Wal-Mart in Danvers, Mass,. had a carnival-like atmosphere, as shoppers, their views obscured by huge TV boxes wedged into carts, bumped into displays and occasionally each other.

Early-bird specials drove traffic to Kohl's the day after Thanksgiving. The Wisconsin-based value retailer which has more stores in California than any other state, had 250 specials that went from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. It included products such as a personal DVD player and a flat-screen TV.

Kohl's spokeswoman Lori Sansoucie said that home entertaining items, such as a fondue set and a poker set, sold quickly, as did men's and women's cashmere.

"Jewelry was also really hot," she said. "Our stores were very busy throughout the day and people seemed pleased with what they were finding."

Mainstream Department Stores and Regional Malls

"Clearly, cold weather merchandise was terrific," said Klein of Macy's East. He cited cashmere sweaters, mufflers, and gloves for men and women; children's wear, classic fragrances such as Chanel No.5; celebrity fragrances. including those by Britney Spears and Sarah Jessica Parker, and new designer fragrances from Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren.

J.C. Penney reported record sales Friday with strong momentum Saturday as well, said Ken Hicks, president and chief merchandising officer. He declined to reveal the sales gain, but said, "We had great traffic across the country." Penney's did best with doorbusters — especially a portable DVD player for $88, women's Worthington leather jackets for $48.88 and lambskin coats for $99, plus a St. John's Bay men's leather coat for $98. Worthington and St. John's Bay are private labels.Two of Penney's biggest businesses were juniors and young men's, particularly junior sweaters and young men's fleece, Hicks noted. The chain also did well with boots, which Hicks credited to the cold snap. Customers didn't seem phased by the rise in prices for home heating bills. "Everybody put that aside to enjoy and get ready for Christmas season," he said.

Despite the strong start, Penney's is sticking with the low-single-digit sales gain it previously projected for the season.

Electronics and apparel were the top sellers at the malls operated by Simon Property Group, particularly sweaters, Xboxes, iPods and personal DVD players, said Billie Scott, spokeswoman. Based on feedback from 15 malls nationwide out of the 300 centers Simon operates, sales were on par with or ahead of last year, she noted.

Early-bird specials were effective at drawing crowds, and a "midnight madness" Thanksgiving night at several Chelsea Premium Outlets centers was highly successful, she added.

At Dallas' NorthPark Center mall, which opened a new wing two weeks ago, traffic rose 18 percent and 56 percent of stores reported they had beaten their sales plans, said Christine Szalay, marketing director for the mall. "The average sales gain we heard was between 6 and 27 percent," she said. "All indicators are that it will be a fabulous Christmas at NorthPark."

Crowds hit Galleria Dallas starting at 6 a.m. Friday, according to Peggy Weaver, general manager. "We were going up against strong double-digit increases from last year but it looks like we beat them . Shoppers are out and looking for luxury, especially fine jewelry, leather, cashmere, epicure and electronics. Several retailers reported that they beat their sales plans early. The mood of shoppers is upbeat and looking for great gifts on which to splurge. It's a great start to the holiday season."

Galleria Dallas, which has more than 200 stores and attracts more than 17 million visitors each year, also enticed visitors with ice-skating shows featuring Olympian Dorothy Hamill, among others, and a treelighting ceremony.

At Macy's in Union Square in San Francisco, about 350 people waited in line for the 6 a.m. opening, said Lori Randolph, vice president and general manager of that location."We normally have good morning traffic, but not great like this," said Randolph, who said that the effects of the company's first national advertising campaign could be visibly seen in the "bumper to bumper" traffic on escalators.

The campaign, which including a million-dollar giveaway, launched on Thanksgiving Day and was the first one for the company to include all of the divisions.

Randolph said the women's shoe area was particularly packed, indicating that people were doing a lot of purchasing for themselves. Fur-trimmed boots sold very well, she said, as did items in velvet and with embellishment.

"There's going to be a lot of Christmas in Southern California," said Jack Keyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation. "At first people were cautious because of high gas prices and people overestimated disasters on the Gulf Coast, but now people are realizing that the national economy is doing well."

Keyser also attributes the robust shopping conditions to the low 4.4 percent unemployment rate in Southern California, and said that traffic at Lakewood Center, one of the first regional malls in the Los Angeles area, was a bellwether for the upcoming season.

The mall, located 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles counts Robinsons-May, Macy's and Target among its anchors. Keyser said that stores such as the Disney Store, Best Buy, KB toys and Circuit City all opened at 4 a.m. to crowds eager to snap up such items as Xboxes and iPods. Target's 6 a.m. opening saw a crowd who literally ran into the store, said Keyser.

Traffic was also brisk In Orange County malls such as Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Calif. and Irvine Spectrum in Irvine, Calif., where families lined up by 9 a.m. to see Santa and the ice skating rink was sold out all day.

"Fashion Island has been trending strong year to date growth over last year and we expect to remain consistent over holiday season," said Nina Robinson, spokesperson for the Irvine Properties which owns over 35 shopping centers in Orange County, including Fashion Island and Irvine Spectrum Center. 

With contributions from Holly Haber and Rusty Williamson, Dallas; Georgia Lee, Atlanta; Michelle Dalton Tyree, Los Angeles and Kristi Ellis, Washington

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