NEW YORK (AP) — In a bid to get shoppers to buy rather than browse, merchants started the holiday season today by cutting prices, and many shoppers showed up before dawn — sometimes even before midnight.

As stores and malls dangled discounts on the official kickoff of the holiday shopping season, Internet merchants also courted shoppers by offering deals to those who visit their Web sites.

The crowds were so big early today at the Ames discount store in Revere, Mass., that all the shopping carts were taken by 7:15 a.m.

Bargain prices lured shoppers to a Wal-Mart stores nationwide. In Bowie, Md., lines began to form around 10:30 p.m. Thursday night, hours before the store's 6 a.m. opening, while hundreds of cars filled a Wal-Mart parking lot in Lynn, Mass., at 5 a.m.

"I didn't want to be here, but you can't beat the prices," said Charles Chisholm, who had already picked out two $99 19-inch TVs and $69 VCRs by 6:15 a.m. at the Lynn store.

It's been a blockbuster year for retailers — both traditional and online — but a lot is riding on the next five weeks, when most store owners tally a significant portion of their annual sales. Last year, merchants rang up more than $170 billion in sales during the holiday period.

"Shoppers won't just be at the mall this weekend, but they will checking things out online," said Britt Beemer, chairman of the consulting firm America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C. "Where they find the better deal is where they might actually make the purchase."

With consumer confidence remaining strong, unemployment levels at 30-year lows and stock prices continuing to climb, expectations are high for this year. Estimates are that Americans will spend at least an average of $500 per family.

Analysts project sales at traditional stores will rise 5 percent to 6 percent from last year, while online sales are expected to at least double from December 1998.

But retailers have learned that bold forecasts aren't always on target. With shoppers more fickle today than ever before, anything — from a downturn in the stock market to unusual weather — can keep them home.

"We had a great start to this year, but we've seen spending slow down a little bit and no one is sure what that will mean for this holiday season," said Michael Niemira, a retail analyst at Bank of Toyko-Mitsubishi in New York.

In addition, shop owners also are coming under pressure from the growth in popularity of the Internet. While e-retailers only tally a fraction of all holiday sales, traditional merchants don't want to lose too much business to their Web rivals.

Last year, the $3 billion in online holiday sales accounted for less than 2 percent of all retail activity. But Internet businesses are spending hundreds of millions in advertising this season to lure shoppers to their sites.

Paul Misiur braved the crowds — and the rain — this morning at the Toys R Us in Elizabeth, N.J., where he was first on a line of 100 people waiting for the store's 6 a.m. opening.

The first 500 customers at all Toys R Us stores got a free Pokemon gift that ties in with the popular animated children's television show, trading cards and a newly released movie.

But Misiur still plans to do much of its holiday buying online.

"It's a lot easier than doing what we're doing here this morning," Misiur said.

Regardless of where they set up shop, retailers are hoping to get shoppers buying early this season. In recent years, more consumers have browsed during the Thanksgiving weekend and deferred most of their gift-buying until sales closer to Christmas.

Last year, about 46 percent of Americans did their holiday buying in the 10 days before Christmas, while just 9 percent bought gifts during Thanksgiving weekend, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group.

Many stores also hope an early start to Hanukkah, which begins Dec. 3 this year, will prompt some shoppers to buy sooner.

The Internet merchants are also running promotions to drive traffic to their sites. Unlike traditional retailers, online stores are expected to do the bulk of their sales in early December, which gives ample time for shoppers to receive Christmas purchases.

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