Nation's retailers usher in the holiday season with earlier openings, more deals

Friday, November 26th 2004, 5:08 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ In a bid to ring up sales fast, the nation's retailers are serving up even more early bird specials on the likes of TVs and toys, expanding their hours and offering free eats and tunes as they usher in the official start of the holiday season Friday.

And merchants are keeping their fingers crossed that, in an improving though still challenging economy, the crowds will keep coming throughout the next month.

At least two chains _ J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. _ pushed up their openings on what the retail industry likes to call Black Friday because of the day's profitability. Sears decided to get a full hour's jump on last year, unlocking the doors at 6 a.m. instead of 7. Penney was betting bargain hunters would roll out of bed even earlier, at 5:30 a.m. Last year's starting time had been 6.

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 throughout the day 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 birds with food, drink and razzle-dazzle. The entertainment lineup is 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 total sales, excluding restaurant and auto sales, 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 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.