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Cha-ching! It's beginning to look like Christmas

Friday, November 28, 2003

Several early shoppers crowd the registers at the Brazil Wal-mart early this morning. The shoppers were checking out a variety of items, including toys, clothes, and video game systems.


AP Business Writer

NEW YORK -- Shoppers everywhere braved the early hours in search of a bargain Friday as retailers inaugurated the holiday shopping season with the usual gimmicks, including early bird specials.

Wal-mart was a popular Brazil shopping place before 8 a.m. today.

Retailers throughout the Wabash Valley are optimistic that shoppers would imitate Santa more than Scrooge on the traditionally busiest shopping day of the year.

About 100 people waited in line outside the KB Toy store in King of Prussia mall near Philadelphia about 5:15 a.m.. Edna Daniels, 65, worried her toy would be gone and wished she had been quicker.

"I wish that I had gotten up early. I would have been here at 4 o'clock; I would have been second in line," she said, hoping to take advantage of a special on the Game Boy Advance for her grandsons, ages 9 and 12. "By this time, I doubt they have them."

Outside a Wal-Mart store in Burlington Township, N.J., Erika Johnson said she was shocked by the line of people that wrapped around the block at 5:30 a.m.

"I couldn't believe it," Johnson said. "I never did this before and I think it may be the last time."

Johnson said she was looking for a CD-DVD combination player that was on sale for $29. She also hoped to get a Hummer remote control car for her daughter, which was going for $20 -- about half its regular price.

With an improving economy, merchants are more hopeful this year that consumers will keep buying throughout the season, not only when the merchandise is 50 percent off.

"It's not going to be easy. Stores have conditioned consumers to buy on sale," said Burt Flickinger, managing partner at the consulting firm Strategic Resource Group in New York.

Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s early bird specials, from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., include $99 grills and $299.99 combination DVD camcorders. All-day specials include 50 percent off on all sweaters and outerwear, except its Lands' End label.

At J.C. Penney Co. Inc., consumers can get 50 percent reductions on holiday decorations, and 35 percent to 50 percent discounts on selected apparel.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is offering such early bird specials as Symphonic 20-inch flat screen TVs for $99.46, Apex DVD-CD combination players for $29.87 and Kodak digital cameras for $99.74.

The Washington-based National Retail Federation projects total holiday sales to be up 5.7 percent to $217.4 billion from last year. That compares with a modest 2.2 percent increase in 2002.

Stores should also benefit from a quirk in the calendar -- the holiday season has 27 shopping days, instead of last year's 26.

Still, while many retailers believe the holiday 2003 season will be better than last year, the question is by how much. The economy is on the rebound, but the job market, though improving, is still sluggish.

In fact, stores are aiming to avoid getting stuck with mounds of holiday leftovers by entering the season with inventories that average 7 percent below last year's levels.

Meanwhile, online holiday sales are expected to remain a bright spot.

Forrester Research estimated that online sales from Thanksgiving weekend to Christmas will increase 42 percent over a year ago to $12.2 billion. The results include travel and auction sites.

While the Thanksgiving weekend starts the shopping spree, it no longer is the busiest period of the season. Last year, the weekend accounted for 10.1 percent of holiday sales.

The busiest period -- which is becoming increasingly important -- is the last week before Christmas, which accounted for 41 percent a year ago. That's up from 34 percent in 2001 and 30.9 percent in 2000, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The weekend's business, however, is hardly a barometer of how the rest of the season will fare. Last year, stores enjoyed a strong Thanksgiving weekend, but sales quickly deteriorated.

Times Editor Frank Phillips contributed to this story.

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