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Holiday shoppers pack the nation's malls

Shoppers jammed the nation's malls on the last weekend before Christmas, snapping up bargains and hunting for popular toys, but retailers were anxious after a much-hoped for sales bonanza did not materialize for many of them.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Shoppers jammed the nation's malls on the last weekend before Christmas, snapping up bargains and hunting for popular toys, but retailers were anxious after a much-hoped for sales bonanza did not materialize for many of them.

Spirits were deflated a bit Sunday after the government warned of a possible terrorist attack during the holiday season.

In response to the heightened national alert level, major mall operators such as Taubman Centers Inc., which owns and manages 31 shopping centers in 13 states, immediately stepped up their security, though company officials declined to elaborate.

"The threat won't have an effect this weekend, because most people don't know about the alert," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston,S.C. "But it could reduce retailers' ability to have a huge business on Monday and Tuesday, and the week after Christmas. It may likely make people who are close to being done decide they've purchased enough."

Retailing executives appeared unfazed on Sunday.

Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman at the National Retail Federation, disagreed, saying that "since Sept. 11, consumers have learned to go on with their lives," and she doesn't foresee traffic being hurt.

Said Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Taubman: "Consumers learned to be vigilant, and I don't think this will have an effect" on their shopping.

She reported that sales at a sampling of Taubman mall stores were up mid-single digits on Saturday from a year ago.

Nevertheless, the raised alert is the latest headache for merchants, which are counting on heavy shopping this week to meet their goals.

This past weekend, traffic and business were heavy at discounters and luxury stores. But at mid-priced department stores and mall-based apparel chains, which deepened price cuts on sweaters, jewelry and other items, sales were uneven, continuing the trend seen throughout the season, Beemer said.

"I think it was a very strong weekend, but I don't think it was as big as retailers needed," said Beemer, based on interviews with retail clients. He added that consumers "were looking at the lowest price in each category of merchandise."

At the Valley West Mall in West Des Moines, Iowa, Connie Ferree, was shopping with her mother for 50 to 60 gifts for her relatives, but she said she's spending far less this December.

"The job situation is bad," said Ferree, who has been struggling to find a job in Ames, Iowa. She said she had begun her shopping last week, and was hunting discounted items.

Despite a recovering economy, merchants struggled with modest sales throughout the season and were counting even more for a sales surge this past weekend after two weekends of Northeast snowstorms. Still, retailers are holding out hope that the last-minute spending in the three days before Christmas will help merchants meet their sales goals.

"Traffic was about the same as last year, and stores were very busy," said Tolley. "And if some stores were a little short of their goal, there's plenty of time for that to change."

She noted that the National Retail Federation is still sticking to its holiday forecast for a 5.7 percent gain in total sales from a year ago.

In the past few years, the Saturday before Christmas has been the busiest day of the season. Last year, the Monday before Christmas was the second biggest sales day.

Last year, the last week before Christmas accounted for 41 percent of holiday sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

This year, consumers appear to be waiting longer. According to the association's survey, conducted from Dec. 4-10, 10 percent of the approximate 6,800 consumers polled had completed their shopping, compared with 15 percent during the same time a year ago.

Many stores, particularly department stores and apparel stores, had refrained from aggressive discounting earlier in the season, hoping consumers would be willing to pay full price, but the strategy appeared to have backfired.

And plenty of stores added "unplanned broad-based discounts" this weekend, according to Tom Filandro, senior retail analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group. Limited Inc.'s Express, for example, offered 40 percent off on all sweaters in the stores.

Of course, that's good news for consumers like Margo Whisman, who started her shopping on Friday.

"We're just procrastinators, and that's why we get the sales," said Whisman, who was at the Mall St. Matthews in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday at JC Penney Co. Inc.

Nikeya Merriweather, who was dragging three bags stuffed with gifts, at the Gallery mall in downtown Philadelphia, said she had been Christmas shopping since Dec. 1, but had plenty to buy Saturday. And not until then could she find a good bargain.

Merriweather found a "Baby I Know" doll for her baby, discounted to $14.99, from $29.99.

Stores have reduced inventories by 7 percent from a year ago to keep from getting stuck with lots of leftovers, but Filandro believes there is excess inventory at the specialty stores he follows.