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Post-Thanksgiving Tally: Holiday Shopping Liftoff Fuels 4th-Qtr. Optimism

Retailers said the holiday season is off to a good start and are sticking to predictions for low- to mid-single digit gains.

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NEW YORK — There’s a different ring to Christmas this year and retailers like the sound of it.

No one characterized the post-Thanksgiving weekend as a bonanza and retailers remain cautious. But after Friday’s and Saturday’s business, merchants are not wavering from previous forecasts for a healthy holiday season, marked by increased full-price selling, low to mid-single digit sales gains, and a tight grasp on inventories.

So far this season, retailers have offered fewer coupons, but more early-bird specials, and no super-hot selling item has emerged. Stores seem to be doing best selling a range of luxury goods, fashions infused with color, toys, electronics such as small appliances that are being discounted as well as DVD players, and career and dressier clothes.

As far as this past weekend, considered the opening gun for the Christmas season, there was less browsing, and about an even split between consumers shopping for themselves, and shopping for gifts. A bleak and rainy Friday in the Northeast was offset by Saturday’s and Sunday’s cold, dry weather, but the nation’s leading mall developers, including Taubman Centers, The Rouse Co., General Growth Properties Co. and Simon Property Group, reported strong traffic at many of their centers.

“For Friday and Saturday, our business was better than the trend for the year, we beat plan, and we beat last year,” said Hal Kahn, chairman and chief executive of Macy’s East. “We were very, very pleased, though there were no major surprises. We anticipated that newness would sell. Misses’ career apparel, misses’ suits, urban looks in juniors, jewelry and handbags, were all very, very strong. I don’t know if shoppers are buying earlier, but they are looking for newness and buying gifts.”

Kahn said Mother Nature is key. “If the weather stays dry and cold, our optimism will turn to complete confidence,” he said. “Over 25 percent of our business in November and December is with cold weather merchandise,” with Black Friday being one of Macy’s top five or six volume days of the year.

Michael Gould, chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s, said Friday’s business was above last year and above plan. More significantly, “It’s been a very strong month, particularly in the apparel business with upscale merchandise with limited distribution. The average unit sale is higher than a year ago,” Gould added. “We’re selling more at regular price. That’s encouraging.” Gould also said Bloomingdale’s is in its third year of reducing price promoting, and dropped a newspaper insert with coupons and a two million circulation that would have run the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Another insert for December was dropped, and a third this month is being pared back. Gould said the goal is to reduce promoting by 10 to 15 percent every year.

At Barneys New York, Howard Socol, chairman, ceo and president, said post-Thanksgiving gains were in the high single digits. “We’re very pleased. We took less markdowns and delayed some. It’s going to be a profitable November and December. We just feel a good consistent flow of business.”

Barneys’ best area was shoes, which is generally a self-purchase. Handbags, cold weather goods, jewelry and Co-op were also strong, Socol added. He also said Barneys had additional staff on the selling floors, in anticipation of more traffic this year. “It was just a very solid beginning [to the holiday season] particularly in the luxury sector.”

At Bergdorf Goodman, “Business was fine, but for us it’s not like a super-duper weekend. The month was terrific,” said ceo Ron Frasch. “We are very optimistic about December.” Resortwear, color, boucle, suits, accessories, and footwear were some strong areas last month at Bergdorf’s. “Inventories are a little up over last year, but volume growth is outpacing inventory growth. We’re not worried about running out of goods,” Frasch said.

Tracy Mullin, president and ceo of the National Retail Federation, summed up the mood. “Consumers were not just window shopping, which they sometimes do this time of year. They were actually buying things. There are no major negatives out there. Retailers seem more committed than ever before to not slash prices, and they are trying some innovative ways to get customers into the stores. It will be a good solid holiday — not a spectacular one.” The NRF has forecast a 5.7 percent total sales gain for America’s retailers this Christmas. That would bring the season’s spending to $217.4 billion and make it the best since 1999. The period accounts for between 25 and 40 percent of a retailer’s revenues.

Compared with NRF’s very positive forecasting, Tom DeRosa, vice chairman of The Rouse Co., was more circumspect. He did say traffic at several Rouse malls was strong, though he added, “People are being reserved. The economy isn’t that much better than last year. There are some brighter spots — tax news, the stock market — but there’s still a lot of people out of work and there’s the unsettling global situation. That all makes people very cautious. I don’t think people are spending with a great sense of optimism, yet it’s better than last year. Traffic is up.”

DeRosa added, “There seems to be less of the daily fear that something is going to happen on U.S. soil. People have a better idea of what’s happening, and that allows people to plan better. But I don’t think the economy is all that much better.”

Retailers nationwide were using new strategies to entice shoppers, often opening earlier and rewarding the early birds. Saks Fifth Avenue opened at 8 a.m. Friday, an hour earlier than a year ago, offered coffee and croissants, and ran significant discounts, from 40 percent early in the day, to 25 percent later. The company declined to comment on business, though “traffic was brisk,” said Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising. “Luxury and color have been the biggest trends,” including status bags, such as Prada, Gucci and Marc Jacobs, and novelty cashmeres. She also cited Burberry cashmere scarves, and fine jewelry such as diamond beveled watches, chandeliered earrings, and cuff links from Dunhill. Color watch bands, the pink nylon quilted Prada bag, Marc Jacobs Stella bag in pink and lavender, Burberry men’s boxer shorts in Burberry check, have also been bestsellers.

Penney’s opened at 6 a.m. on Friday with lines at many locations, including 200 shoppers waiting at the door at Penney’s new Cedar Hill, Tex., store, according to a spokeswoman. The crowds snapped up Penney’s promotional items such as a 1-carat diamond bracelet for $99, women’s handbags and fashion jewelry, leather outerwear, lingerie and monogrammed sweaters, all at varying discounts.

On Saturday, Penney’s scored big with a buy-one, get-one for 88 cents promotion in some departments, including women’s fashion jewelry. Penney’s expects fourth quarter comp-store sales to inch ahead by low single digits, while Federated Department Stores expects plus or minus a point.

At the sprawling Dallas Galleria, stores were jammed Friday and Saturday and parking spaces were almost nonexistent early in the morning. At Macy’s, Nordstrom and Saks, areas getting the most action were women’s accessories and jewelry, beauty and apparel, including heavily promoted cold-weather styles and early spring looks that weren’t deeply discounted, according to sales associates at the stores.

NorthPark Center was packed early Friday, with sweaters, coats, accessories and fashion and fine jewelry the most popular areas, according to sales associates. At Neiman’s, resort, warmer-weather fashions were popular among women planning holiday vacations.

Carl Rosendorf, president and ceo of the $100 million, privately-held Smart Bargains.com off-price apparel Web site, said his gift-related sales start to build in early November and by the last week of the month, “It’s roaring. The online shopper recognizes that the time line is different for them. They want to ensure that their gifts arrive well before the time they need them.”

He said his business Thursday through Saturday was well over 30 percent above last year. “What is most intriguing is that Americans are dressing up, whether it’s men’s and women’s suits, dress shirts, ties, handbags, scarves, jewelry and even cashmere, which may have previously been considered more casual. It’s also translating into the home, with down comforters with higher thread counts. We can’t keep 600 or 1,000 thread counts in stock. The quality is very important.”

On the West Coast, the Thanksgiving weekend was decent, not outstanding. “It looks like a pretty good start to the holiday season,” said Robert Mettler, chairman and ceo of San Francisco-based Macy’s West, expecting between a flat-to-1-percent increase in comp-store sales this season over last from 110 units.

“It was certainly better than last year,” he continued. “But it’s still too early to tell. We will be cautiously optimistic that it will be better than last year but to what degree, I don’t know.”

Unlike last year, there wasn’t one standout item like the Juicy Couture velour sweat suit to cause a buying frenzy. But details such as pastel colors and initials on everything from T-shirts to handbags emerged as the season’s must-haves across several categories.

Macy’s West kept inventories lean while still having plenty of what the customer wanted, said Mettler. This year, it was cashmere sweaters, career clothing and handbags that drove the women’s business. Cooler weather in the region helped along outerwear sales, too, specifically Marc Jacobs and DKNY coats. Sales of skirts and premium denim from DKNY, Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger also kept pace.

Mettler conceded regional problems, such as the grocery store and transit strikes in Los Angeles, have slowed down several stores’ sales of late. The strikes have made shopping for food and transportation difficult and usurped recreational shopping time. Although the grocery strike still lingers on, “we’re seeing signs that things are getting somewhat better,” he added.

Executives at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif. were more upbeat. Most stores exceeded last year’s sales by mid-afternoon on Friday, said spokeswoman Debra Gunn Downing. Stores there had been recording double-digit increases in November and “we expect the same trend to continue through the end of holiday season,” she said. “Orange County is in a bit of a bubble. We’ve not had much unemployment here, there’s an extreme amount of wealth and there’s a lot of refinancing of money back into this economy.”

Door busters and promotions at department stores helped to generate crowds and queues as early as 4:30 a.m. on Friday and kept up some momentum through the weekend.

At Mervyn’s, traffic was up from last year, said a spokeswoman, helped along by $5 promo cards given to the first 350 customers at each of the chain’s 267 stores on Friday. Customers, who formed lines 5:30 a.m., were let in the door at 7 a.m. to pick up basic fleece zip-front pullovers, monogrammed sweaters and initial purses. Teen girls were drawn to retro Eighties licensed goods from “Care Bear,” “My Little Pony” and “Strawberry Shortcake.”

At Nordstrom in the Glendale Galleria in Glendale, Calif., crowds lined up at 5 a.m. to have a shot at gold keys given out to the first 300 people, five of which would open five boxes containing $150 gift certificates. It was not a chain-wide promotion, said a spokeswoman. Throughout the chain, velour sweat suits continued to sell across all price points, sizes and brands. In contemporary, James Perse’s off-the-shoulder cotton T-shirts and A.G. Jeans sold well as did soft feminine sweaters in pastel pink, ivory and periwinkle. Topping teens’ holiday lists were fleece-nylon “Denali” jackets from The North Face, Nike’s low-rise workout pants and Nike’s “Sphere” jackets. In accessories, Nordstrom reported brisk sales of multicolored opaque tights from DKNY and Hue and initials on big leather satchels.

Wet Seal’s 622 units, suffering from not-so-trendy product mixes causing comp store sales declines for several quarters now, hit plan over Thanksgiving weekend, according to ceo Peter Whitford. “We’re not unhappy at all,” he said, adding all three divisions, Wet Seal, Arden B. and Zutopia, “did well” despite bad weather in the Midwest. Cashmere sweaters at Arden B., angora sweaters at Wet Seal and wool sweaters at Zutopia drove sales as did denim and corduroy pants in the three divisions. Black party dresses festooned with sequins, studded initial T-shirts and black-and-pink T-shirts printed with illustrations of dogs, poodles and cats were strong items at Arden B. But in all stores, “softer colors such as pinks, winter whites, pale blues and camels were all very good for us,” said Whitford.

Wal-Mart shoppers hauled out gift sets, small electronics and appliances, holiday decor, children’s clothing, toys and fleece sweat suits. On Friday, the world’s largest chain raked in $1.52 billion from its 3,499 U.S. stores, a 6.3 percent increase over its $1.43 billion performance last year, the company announced Saturday. The gain came after an even more robust 14.4 percent gain last year.

Coffee makers, crock pots, toasters, and mini food processors priced $4.86 apiece hit big with customers, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman said, though shoppers rushing to grab $29.99 portable DVD players trampled a woman in an Orange City, Fla. store. The woman was knocked unconscious but survived.

Large and lavish-seeming gift sets at rock-bottom prices also appeared to do well. A 30-plus piece vanity set, in a box the size of a cupboard door, went for $8.87.

Linda Lubin and daughter Alyssa, shopping at a Wal-Mart in Danvers, Mass., wanted two of those vanity sets for “little grab gifts for holiday parties.”

Lubin complained an associate wouldn’t help her reach the boxes, which were placed on an overhead shelf.

“Well, if it falls on your head we’ll just sue,” she griped as her daughter angled for the boxes with a clothes hanger. Lubin estimated she’d spend $100 at Wal-Mart, but said she planned to do most of her shopping from the Penney and Newport News catalogs.

Although the apparel department didn’t appear busier than usual, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman cited the stain-resistant fleece, advertised in Thanksgiving circulars at $4 to $8 per piece, as big sellers.

Nearby, one competitor played hardball with Wal-Mart. On Saturday, Kids ‘R’ Us employees brandished signs touting “liquidation prices” at the turnoff to the Danvers store.

A Target store in Woburn, Mass. offered customers “rain check” tickets guaranteeing prices on sold-out items. Several Mossimo sweaters had only a few sizes left, Merona socks were low as was a display of Sauve fruity body lotions and washes, priced $1.54. The Virgin Pulse MP 3 ($79.99) and portable DVD player ($99.77), a Target exclusive, sold out at the store on Friday.

The Minneapolis-based retailer had knocked back prices throughout the store, advertising “prices so low they only last two days.” The apparel department seemed slightly busier than usual, although toys, holiday decor, food, beauty and electronics appeared to be the busiest departments. A cashier said the biggest rush was Friday morning, but the day overall was quieter than management had hoped.

“I think they were expecting a little more [traffic],” he said.

Tricia Wilde, who sells her handbag designs at craft shows, said the low prices impressed and scared her. She was shopping mainly for toys for her young sons, but had plunked a couple of Mossimo zip hoodies for herself into her cart.

“The prices are so aggressive,” she said. “No wonder people don’t want to spend $25 on my handbags.”

Pointing to a set of gloves, priced $1.47 for two pairs, she said crafters buy gloves at Target, embellish and resell them. She estimated she’d spend $100 “unless I find something spectacular. I’m with my kids today, so it’s hard to do a big shopping.”

After contending with snow last year, Boston-area retailers were thankful for a mild, foggy weekend with temperatures around 50 degrees.

People shopped early and in groups, buying for themselves and for their companions, who often picked out what they wanted.

Sales were up double digits for many upscale retailers at Copley Place in downtown Boston, which houses Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Dior boutiques, according to a spokeswoman from Simon Property Group, owner of Copley and 245 other properties around the country. Luxury fabrics like cashmere, leather, fur and suede performed well there, she said.

By 11:30 a.m. on Friday, the parking lot was full at the Mall at Chestnut Hill, in Chestnut Hill, Mass. anchored by Bloomingdale’s, the Simon spokeswoman said. Ready-to-wear performed well there, although she declined to specify what store or brand specifically.

At South Shore Plaza, in Braintree, Mass., electronics dominated purchasing, the Simon spokeswoman said. Children visiting Santa at that mid-tier mall were overheard wishing for cell phones and play stations, she said.

A Filene’s spokeswoman said Friday’s fog dampened traffic only slightly and that turnout for traditional events — the unveiling of Nutracker-themed windows, the arrival of Santa and the tree lighting with performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra — was very strong. “We had trumpeters playing and people just rushed up to the windows,” she said. “Since 9/11 people seemed to really love those things.”

On the less traditional side, Filene’s offered a new section of electronics, including digital cameras and the department store exclusive on the new generation Apple iPod.

T.J. Maxx in Framingham, Mass. seemed to have trouble competing with the early bird hubbub. Unlike big box stores who fattened the Thanksgiving newspaper with circulars, the off-price giant takes a low key approach to Black Friday. “Maybe we’ll get some customers in later,” a cashier groused. TJX Cos. had no comment.

In the Washington, D.C., Hecht’s opened before dawn Friday to crowds. Apparel sales filled the stores and there were $15-off coupons, which meant shoppers could buy a $19.99 merino wool sweater or pair of women’s corduroy pants for $4.99. The coupons provided an extra lure for shoppers who had to face a nasty Friday rainstorm and brisk Saturday winds, which seemed to limit crowds in retail-rich Georgetown.

But not all retailers were counting on low prices and moving shelves of merchandise to pump up revenue, like at designer boutique Relish in Chevy Chase, Md., just outside Washington on Wisconsin Ave., where nary markdown sales sign could be found.

Relish’s post-Thanksgiving business was “OK” but above last year, said owner Nancy Pearlstein. She isn’t dismayed since the last two weeks were up 10 percent over last year, she said. Hot sellers include $450 private label Italian stretch above-the-knee velvet dresses with low backs, and $50 to $60 camisoles with matching $35 to $40 tap pants from the Los Angeles manufacturer, Underglam.

Crowds packed Tysons Corner Center in McClean, Va., which on Friday marketing director Eric Kulczycky judged to be the largest day-after-Thanksgiving in his seven years at the mall. “Retailers so far have given us good feedback on sales and we’re very optimistic this holiday season” for strong sales, he said, noting several hundred parking spaces at nearby offices have been rented to handle spill over from the 10,000-space Tysons parking garages.

Across the street at Tysons Galleria, a “nice crowd” turned out on Friday and early sales reports were upbeat, said Jaime Freedman, senior director of marketing.

Taubman Centers reported that for Friday, many merchants ended up mid-single digit increases, no one category stood out and business was really spread out across all categories and malls, with electronics, toys mentioned frequently as big sellers. The biggest crowd waiting to get in a store Friday morning was at Filene’s at Westfarms in Farmington, Conn. where 700 people lined up at 6 a.m. to take advantage of a $15 gift card promotion, and in many cases, they bought toys. Among hottest items: Mighty Beanz, Beyblades, and Bratz dolls.

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