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Cautious Consumers Kick Off Holiday Shopping Season

November 29, 1991

Undated (AP) _ Americans crowded into stores and malls Friday for the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season, but the uncertainty of a weak economy weighed heavily on the wallets of many consumers.

Some shoppers said they were cutting back on gift-giving this year because of worries about money or job security. Yet for other consumers - especially those living in parts of the country less battered by the recession - it will be Christmas as usual.

″I’m more browsing than buying,″ said Nancy Green, a Mansfield, Ohio, resident who drove 75 miles to Columbus to visit a discount electronics store.

″The economy has definitely affected my shopping plans,″ she said.

Whether they were making purchases or just looking, shoppers filled stores and malls that opened early and offered specials to draw crowds. Ikea home furnishings stores on the East Coast opened at 6 a.m. and some Wal-Mart stores opened at 7 a.m.

But Kmart Corp. got the jump on its rivals, having opened some of its stores on Thanksgiving Day.

Two well-known shoppers Friday were President and Mrs. Bush, who visited a J.C. Penney near Camp David.

Some early shoppers expressed dissatisfaction with Bush’s handling of the economy.

″We just don’t feel he’s there for the middle-income people at all,″ said Cathy Anderson of New Cumberland, Pa., who has slashed her Christmas gift budget by more than half and is cutting back on gifts for her 2-year-old daughter.

Many other Americans also have reduced their planned Christmas outlays, according to a survey released Friday by the Conference Board.

The business-supported research organization said consumers are expected to spend about 3 percent less on gifts this year than at the already depressed levels of Christmas 1990. Its survey found buying plans were down in the Northeast and South, but modestly higher in the Midwest, which has fared better during the recession.

Midwestern retailers sounded fairly upbeat as shoppers crowded their stores Friday.

″We’ve heard a lot of talk about the recession, but that hasn’t affected our sales,″ said Don Frank, manager of Herberger’s department store in Kearney, Neb.

Some Illinois retailers were pleasantly surprised as a strike, lockout and layoffs at Caterpillar Inc. plants did not seem to slow the holiday rush.

″It’s been phenomenal, unbelievable,″ said Mike Lucas, manager of a Sears store in downtown Peoria, Ill. ″It has started out strong, much stronger than it’s been for the past three years at this time.″

Some Midwestern shoppers also were upbeat.

″My spending habits haven’t changed at all,″ said Pat Horn of Kankakee, Ill., who was shopping in Chicago. ″I don’t see a recession in the Midwest.″

But consumer caution was still widespread. Chris Mizer, regional vice president for the Lazarus department store chain, said shoppers at a Columbus branch were leaning toward cheaper merchandise.

Lazarus shopper Jonie Strohl of Delaware, Ohio, said she was buying practical gifts. ″I’m not buying fun things anymore,″ she said.

″If it’s not on sale, it’s not going home,″ said Mary Cole of Austell, Ga., who had filled two shopping bags one hour after stores opened at 7:30 a.m. at Cumberland Mall outside Atlanta.

Addlyn Holt, of Fayetteville, Ga., said she was paying cash for everything. But in Westfield, N.J., Tom Kennelly used credit cards, noting: ″I can pay for Christmas presents in February.″

As expected, lower-priced retailers did well.

″We’re going gangbusters here,″ said Eric Berman, assistant general manager at Sawgrass Mills, a 220-store discount outlet mall in Sunrise, Fla.

At Marietta, Ga., George Rowe of Smyrna said he shopped exclusively at malls in previous years, but was doing most of his holiday buying this year at stores like Wal-Mart.

Job security was a big concern among shoppers.

″We don’t know if in February we are going to have our jobs,″ said Maria Narganes, who was browsing in downtown Boston. She and her husband, Francisco, are school administrators in the cash-strapped city of Lawrence, Mass.

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