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Soggy start for shoppers
But stores tell of brisk early sales as holiday retail season begins in earnest.
November 28, 2003: 1:24 PM EST
By Parija Bhatnagar, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Rain and leaner discounts greeted shoppers across much of the nation on Black Friday, a day that marks the official start of the holiday sales season.

"Early indications show that store traffic and the promotional activity is at lower levels than last year at this time," said Kurt Barnard, an independent retail consultant. "I wouldn't be surprised if many retailers try to get away with selling merchandise at full price."

Jewelry shoppers at Macy's flagship store in New York early Friday.  
Jewelry shoppers at Macy's flagship store in New York early Friday.

Barnard anticipates that same-store sales -- or sales at stores open at least a year -- will rise between 1 percent and 3 percent for the three days including Black Friday and the coming weekend.

"That's not fantastic by any means," Barnard said.

However, most analysts and retailers said it's too early to determine how the overall holiday season shakes out for retailers -- and many still are optimistic.

"What we've seen on Black Friday historically is no clear indicator of how holiday sales will finish," said Michael Niemira, senior economist with Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. "Even though we might not see heavy promotions this year, we think underlying consumer demand is strong. If people want to wait until after Christmas for the big sales, they run the risk of picking up leftover merchandise."

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Early-bird shoppers get a start on their Christmas shopping. CNN's Jason Carroll reports from Macy's flagship store in New York City.

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Foul weather was also marring the day for shoppers along the East Coast, with a storm in the forecast for parts of the Northeast later Friday.

"Of course retailers don't want rain today. It just sours the mood of shoppers. But if there's stuff that people really want to buy today, they'll still go out and get it," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of New York-based retail consultancy, Davidowitz & Associates.

DVDs, jewelry and trampolines

At Wal-Mart (WMT: Research, Estimates), the world's largest retailer, crowds were packing into stores as early as 6 a.m. local time.

"I saw at least three stores here in Arkansas with hardly any space left in the parking lots," Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams said.

According to Wal-Mart, customers are quickly snapping up a variety of items such DVDs, DVD players, trampolines and bicycles.

The biggest stores -- including Wal-Mart, Target (TGT: Research, Estimates), J.C. Penney (JCP: Research, Estimates), and Best Buy (BBY: Research, Estimates) -- scheduled 6 a.m. (local time) openings.

Toy retailers, anticipating a mad rush of shoppers, scheduled even earlier openings Friday. The KB Toys store in Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, N.Y., let shoppers in at 5 a.m. ET.

But the initial report from the store indicates that early crowds were smaller than in 2002.

"We're seeing a good crowd but it's not as chaotic as last year," said one store employee who did not want to be named, adding that store-wide discounts are not as sharp as last year's.

"The most popular toy so far is the GameBoy Advance," he said, referring to Nintendo's handheld electronic game device. Other toys flying off the shelves were the Hokey Pokey Elmo, Barbies, and Bratz fashion dolls.

Scurrying from store to store

"Early accounts coming in to us say that people are running across malls to the department stores to take advantage of the best deals," said Les Morris, spokesman for Simon Property Group, the leading mall operator and owner of Roosevelt Field Mall as well as the Ross Park Mall in Pittsburgh and the Northeast Mall in Fort Worth, Texas.

"About 70 percent of the parking lot was already full by 7 a.m. at Ross Park despite heavy rains. Jewelry, toys, DVDs and home accessories are the most sought after products," Morris said. "At Sears in Northeast Mall, jewelry and DVD/TV combos are selling well."

At Atlanta's Lenox Mall, home furnishings, shoes, and party wear and mall gift cards were the most sought-after items, Morris said.

At the Palisades Center's J.C. Penney store, shoppers took advantage of early doorbuster deals from 6 a.m. to noon of 50 percent or more, including 70 percent off on luggage.

"We're seeing a good mix of men and women this early," store manager Raymond Canario said. "But so far, there are a lot of customers in our jewelry department."

What's the big attraction? "A one karat diamond bracelet for $99," Canario said.

Meanwhile, some shoppers at Tacoma Mall in Tacoma, Wash., braved heavy rains Friday to in search of gift deals. "The Starbucks here was open as early as 4:45 a.m.," said Lynn Castle, spokeswoman for the mall.

"Black Friday" gets its name from the hope that on that day merchants' financial statements will move out of the red and into the black.

For its part, the National Retail Federation (NRF), the industry's largest trade group, expects sales for the key November and December shopping period to grow 5.7 percent, the largest rise since 1999, to $217.4 billion.

Sales last year grew just 2.2 percent for the same period, the weakest performance in more than a decade. But despite the NRF's bullish outlook, some industry watchers are cautious.

The consensus among analysts is that holiday spending this year will be solid, if not spectacular, averaging a smaller 4 percent growth.  Top of page

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