November 26, 2004

Retailers Usher in the Holiday Season

NEW YORK -- In a bid to get consumers shopping early, the nation's retailers are serving up even more early bird specials on such items as TVs and toys, expanding their shopping hours and offering other enticements as they usher the official start of the holiday season on Friday.

In an improving though still challenging economy, merchants are hoping the crowds will keep coming throughout the season.

At least two chains - J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. - are opening their doors anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour earlier than a year ago to grab a bigger share of consumers' dollars. Sears, for example, is opening at 6 a.m., instead of 7 a.m., and is offering three times as many deals than a year ago. Penney has a 5:30 a.m. opening, instead of 6 a.m. on what is known as Black Friday.

Struggling toy chain KB Toys Inc., which sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January, is opening its doors at 5 a.m. again this year, but some stores will open about a half hour earlier. The retailer is also running the early bird specials all day long instead of having them end at noon.

Taubman Centers Inc., which owns or manages 22 shopping centers nationwide, including upscale N.J.'s upscale Short Hills Mall, is hoping to lure early bird shoppers with free food and drinks - plus pep rallies, complete with high school cheerleaders and a disc jockey.

"We believe that if we can win the day after Thanksgiving, then the momentum will build throughout the season," said Chris Brathwaite, a Sears spokesman.

Some of the early bird specials at Sears are $4.99 Barbie dolls, reduced from $9.99; $99.99 Fiesta gas grills, marked down from $179.99; and $29.99 heavy weight hooded jackets by the U.S. Polo Association, reduced from $100.

Most of the nation's retailers are not panicking - not just yet anyway, according to John Morris, an analyst at Harris Nesbitt. They're just trying to drive as much traffic earlier in the season, he said. In fact, discounting for the mall-based apparel retailers he follows is 5 percent below what it was a year ago.

Retailers' spirits have improved in recent weeks as falling fuel prices and job gains revived consumer spending momentum that slowed in the summer. But many shoppers, particularly those with limited disposable income, are saying they will be cautious. Fuel prices remain high, and the job market is still volatile.

The Washington-based National Retail Federation projects that total sales, after restaurant and auto sales are excluded, will increase 4.5 percent for the November-December period. That would be less than the 5.1 percent gain of a year earlier.

Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, predicts a "pretty good Christmas," estimating that sales at stores opened at least a year for the November-December period will be up anywhere from 3 percent to 4 percent. That compares to a 4 percent rise a year ago.

Retailers' efforts last year to get shoppers to buy early worked.

During the 2003 holiday shopping season, the busiest day was the Friday after Thanksgiving, instead of the last Saturday before Christmas, which was the second busiest day, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That reversed a trend seen over the last ten years, when the busiest day was the Saturday before Christmas, according to Mike Niemira, chief economist at the industry group.