Michelle Smith of Bloomington, Minn. shops at a toy store at the Mall of America in Bloomington on Friday.
updated 12/4/2003 11:40:38 AM ET 2003-12-04T16:40:38

The Thanksgiving weekend gave the nation’s retailers a solid start to the holiday season although there were still plenty of signs that consumers are cautious and looking for bargains even if the economy is improving.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other discounters attracted crowds of shoppers with specials on TVs, DVD players and toys and had the strongest sales. Department stores and mall-based apparel retailers were discounting less than they did last year, and their business was uneven.

“Sales appear to be better than last year, but the consumer is still value-oriented and is looking for sales,” said Walter Loeb, who runs his own New York-based retail consulting firm.

A dozen people were standing in line Sunday morning at a Best Buy in Dunwoody, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, waiting for doors to open at 10 a.m. Charles and Susan Lynch were typical of many shoppers, willing to spend but hoping to get a good deal.

“I was unemployed this time last year so my economic situation has greatly improved,” said Charles Lynch, who said the couple was looking for a home theater system.

Regina Elias, from Bayonne, N.J., shopping for discounted Bratz dolls Sunday at a K-B Toy store in Manhattan, said she was feeling “a little better than last year” about her finances.

“I’m working a lot of overtime,” she said, but said she still plans to spend about $1,000, the same as last year.

Michael P. Niemira, a retail industry analyst with Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd., said of the weekend, “It was pretty good, but it wasn’t spectacular.” He described business as stronger for discounters than it was for department stores and apparel merchants.

Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman at the Washington-based National Retail Federation, noted that “it looks like (store) traffic was about the same as last year, possible a little better than last year.”

“It was as good as we had hoped for,” she said.

Although the economy is recovering and consumer confidence is on the rise, a shopper’s own job security is often the greatest factor in how much he or she spends.

Major Market Indices

Jane Howard, of Melrose, Mass., was at CambridgeSide Galleria mall in Cambridge, Mass., early Sunday with her daughter, Daria Hinz. The day before, the two snapped up some “tremendous deals,” such as sweaters reduced by 40 percent, at another mall, Howard said.

“I’m enjoying shopping this year. I feel like I’ve got enough money. I’m very happy because I’ve been in my job for a year,” she said.

Total retail sales Friday were up 4.8 percent to $7.2 billion from the Friday after Thanksgiving a year ago, after posting a 6.8 percent gain last year over 2001 results, according to ShopperTrak, which tallies sales at 30,000 retail outlets.

For Friday and Saturday combined, total sales were up about 5.5 percent, according to Niemira, a consultant with ShopperTrak.

Niemira said he still forecasts a sales gain of 4.5 percent for the November-December period, the best performance since 1999, when sales rose 5.4 percent. He based the estimate on sales from stores open at least a year, considered the best indicator of a retailer’s health. Last holiday season’s results were unchanged from 2001.

There were other indications that overall, it was a good weekend:

Online sales had a strong showing on Friday. Research firm comScore Networks Inc., reported online sales rose 38 percent to $200 million on Friday from $145 million a year ago.

Visa USA said total U.S. spending on Visa credit and debit cards on Friday and Saturday rose 12 percent over the same period last year.

Wal-Mart said it hit a single-day company sales record on Friday, taking in more than $1.52 billion nationally, compared to $1.43 billion for the day after Thanksgiving a year ago.

Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers, which owns or manages 31 shopping centers in 13 states, said stores reported more customers were paying full prices. On Friday and Saturday, business was up in the mid single digits from a year earlier.

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, up from 8.4 percent in 2001.

The busiest day over the past few years has been the Saturday before Christmas. The busiest period is the last week before Christmas, which accounted for 41 percent of holiday sales a year ago, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The weekend’s business is also not a gauge of how the rest of the season will fare. Last year, stores enjoyed a robust Thanksgiving weekend, but sales then began to deteriorate.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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