Holiday shopping season under way; retailers lure crowds with deep discounts, early specials

Friday, November 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Hoping to get consumers back in the buying mood, the nation's top merchants opened the official holiday shopping season Friday with expanded hours and some of the most aggressive discounts and early bird specials in recent years.

Shoppers, after pulling back on spending over the past year, responded by waking up before dawn to head to stores and malls to take advantage of the deals.

Lorna Cole of Raymond, N.H., stayed up all night to prepare for her trip to KB Toys in Hooksett, N.H.

``I didn't go to sleep,'' she said. ``You can't sleep on a night like this.''

By the time the toy retailer opened at 5 a.m., 150 people were waiting, and Cole and her friends had hatched an elaborate shopping strategy: One woman went directly to the registers to wait in line, while three others acted as runners to gather items for the group.

Though she was looking for bargains on Scooby Doo items, Barbie dolls and toy robots, Cole said it was the thrill of the hunt that drove her to such early extremes. ``I just enjoy pushing and shoving,'' she said. Within 5 minutes of entering the store, Cole had filled two carts.

Rick Dugre of Manchester, N.H., got in line at KB Toys at 4 a.m. to buy an Xbox video game console for his 15-year-old son. He said he didn't mind getting up so early because he was going deer hunting anyway.

``My wife begged me to check it out,'' he said.

Meanwhile, at a Super Kmart store in Atlanta, Kim Arorash of Bermuda, bought Powder Puff Girls underwear for her 3-year-old daughter. She noted she was ``going to be a little bit wiser in my choices, a little more conscientious. It's smarter to have a little something left over, I think.''

Faced with a drop-off in consumer spending that only got worse after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, retailers are doing whatever they can to jump-start the holiday season with expanded shopping hours and bigger discounts.

For the first time, Kmart stores will be open 66 hours straight, from 5 a.m. Friday, until 11 p.m. Sunday. And Sears, Roebuck & Co. opened its doors at 6 a.m. Friday, an hour earlier than last year.

Kmart opened the season with $49 leather jackets, and $39 George Foreman grills, with a bonus free grill.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is offering a number of early bird specials. Deals include $199 Quasar camcorders and $74 Apex combination DVD and CD players, according to Tom Williams, company spokesman. Sears slashed prices in half on a number of items.

But getting consumers to spend isn't easy. Many shoppers, nervous about job security and political uncertainties, are re-evaluating their priorities and plan to pare back their holiday spending.

Merchants are running deeper promotions that start earlier than last year, allowing shoppers to haggle for prices, and offering some unconventional enticements.

``Category discounts will not work this time around,'' said Philip H. Kowalczyk, vice president of Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm. ``It has to be the must-have sharply priced items that create excitement.''

The National Retail Federation has predicted that total holiday retail sales, excluding restaurant and auto sales, will rise 2.5 percent and 3 percent from last year, to roughly $206 billion. That would make this year's retail growth the worst since 1990, when sales were basically unchanged.

Last holiday season, retailers rang up $201 billion in sales, up 3.9 percent from 1999.

The online retailing sector, which officially kicked off its holiday season more than a week ago to account for shipping time, is expecting a drop-off from the explosive sales gains of past years.

Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix has predicted a relatively modest 11 percent gain in holiday online sales, to $11.9 billion. Between 1999 and last year, holiday online sales had jumped by a whopping 50 percent.

There is a bright spot for store-based retailers worried about a weak start to the holiday season: They may have more time than they realize. The Thanksgiving weekend is no longer the busiest period of the season. Last year, the weekend accounted for only 8.6 percent of holiday sales.

Last-minute shoppers provide the biggest chunk of revenue, with 30.9 percent of last year's holiday sales coming in the last week before Christmas, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.