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Shoppers Brave Chilly Weather for Sales

November 28, 2003

Bargain-hunters lined up before dawn and braved chilly temperatures Friday as retailers inaugurated the holiday shopping season with early bird specials on toys and big-ticket items such as TVs and computers.

Imbia Barry of Marietta, Ga., lost her scarf as hundreds of shoppers, some of them running at full speed, crowded into Wal-Mart when the doors opened at 6 a.m.

``It was an adrenaline rush,″ said Barry, who arrived at 3:30 a.m. She said she bought two HP Pavilion desktop computer sets with 17-inch monitors for $498 apiece, one set each for her mother and child. She said they normally cost about $800.

At the K-B Toy store at the King of Prussia mall near Philadelphia, 23-year-old Rogeline Jean was toting toys including a pair of giant green electronic Hulk Hands and two train sets for her 5-year-old twin sons.

``At first, I was just grabbing stuff. It was overwhelming,″ said Jean, who spent $700 in her first hour of shopping. She planned to spend $2,500 by the end of the day.

Inderpreet Farmahan, 26, said he arrived at Best Buy in Little Rock, Ark., at 2 a.m. to buy a computer system.

``I will grab my laptop, then get my hard drive,″ Farmahan said as he waited in line outside. ``My hands are freezing. I could drop it. (But) you’re saving $400. I can stand four hours in the cold for that.″

Still, some shoppers said they enjoy wading through the crowds every year on the day after Thanksgiving.

``This is what I start my Christmas with,″ said Phyllis Cowden, 60, of Columbia, S.C. Her cart was filled with Power Rangers and a basketball hoop for her grandsons.

George Buckley, 50, of Arlington, Mass., said the shopping frenzy is a tradition in his family. ``Eat turkey, sleep, get up early and spend money and help the economy,″ Buckley said outside the Burlington Mall.

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

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.

Patti Jennings, 39, of Strongsville, Ohio, said she was spending less because her husband had been out of work.

``I’m probably cutting back this year .... we’re trying to play catch-up,″ said Jennings, who bought her children gifts including a watch and $11 jeans on sale for $7.

Stores also 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.

For now, at least, the rush is on.

At least 200 people lined up outside a Wal-Mart in Marietta, Ga. before it opened Friday.

``People were running,″ said Christie Vestal, who showed up before the store opened at 6 a.m. ``They had stacks of five DVD players.″

Later, the parking lot was packed.

``It almost looks like looting except with checkouts at the front,″ said shopper Matt Scott.