NEW YORK - The holiday shopping season began with a solid show of spending on Friday, but consumers faded by the weekend's close and many retailers were facing decent but hardly impressive sales.
Big chains including J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. were pleased with their sales. But Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was less fortunate - the industry leader said its sales in the seven days that ended Friday were disappointing, and the company lowered its sales forecasts for November.
"Friday overall was strong, but Saturday was weak and disappointing, so together it was only a modest two-day performance," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers. "Still, I continue to believe that this is not a bellwether for how the season will end up."
Wally Brewster, spokesman at Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which operates 224 malls in 44 states, said sales and traffic were strong on Friday, but "stabilized" the rest of the weekend. As a result, he expects sales for the weekend to increase in the low single digits, in line with modest expectations.
Wal-Mart's holiday weekend sales suffered because it didn't offer the deep discounts it did in past years, hoping to boost profits, analysts said. Penney and Sears did better by wooing customers with two days of big price breaks.
"Wal-Mart was a big loser because they didn't get the same numbers of early bird shoppers as they did a year ago," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C. "The retailers that won this weekend were the ones that were super aggressive in special purchases and special pricing."
Wal-Mart said Saturday it now expects same-store sales in November to be up only 0.7 percent, instead of the projected 2 percent to 4 percent.
Without any must-haves in apparel and toys, the main attractions were electronics, particularly flat-screen TVs and DVD players, benefiting stores like Best Buy Co. Inc. and Circuit City Stores Inc. Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y., suspects that many mall-based apparel retailers "took it on the chin."
Niemira, who serves as an adviser for ShopperTrak, which tallies sales results from 30,000 outlets and which released sales data for Friday, said a clearer picture of how the Thanksgiving weekend fared will emerge Thursday. That's when the nation's retailers report their same-store sales figures for November. Same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, are considered the best indicator of a retailer's performance.
Total retail sales were up 10.8 percent on Friday compared to the day after Thanksgiving last year, ShopperTrak said. It expects to release Saturday's results on Monday.
Consumers were clearly hunting for good deals.
"I want a flat-screen TV to put in the family room," said Gladys Wright, from Elkton, Md., who was among the crowds outside the FAO Schwarz store in Manhattan on Saturday.
"I am looking around at Wal-Mart and other places, but don't want to spend more than $2,000."
Christian Lalonde, from the Los Angeles suburb of Los Feliz, who was shopping at the local Glendale Galleria on Saturday, said he's "focused on getting the right things."
"At a more expensive store you can get one shirt, but you can get two or three at another store. I'd rather have one of quality than two or three that are not as nice," he added.
Niemira said discounters are likely to have a hard time this holiday season because the lower-end customer has been the most hurt by rising gasoline prices. Luxury stores are expected to do the best, and "everything in the middle is anybody's game," he said.
A shopper's own job security is often the greatest factor in how much is spent.
"I'll probably spend a little more, because my husband's getting paid more," said Elda Hooper, who was shopping for games for the Xbox console with her daughter Tina Darnell, at a Toys R Us Inc. store in Orlando, Fla.
The first weekend of the season, while important, is not as critical as the last 10 days before Christmas. So, despite the lackluster start, Niemira still forecasts a sales gain of 3 percent to 4 percent for holiday period.
Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers, which own or manages 22 shopping centers across the country, said sales and traffic this weekend should be better than expected, based on a spotcheck of 10 malls. On Friday, business was up in the mid-single digits, better than anticipated. On Saturday, sales met projections, with stores reporting sales were anywhere from unchanged to up mid single digits.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation expects that total sales, excluding restaurant and auto sales, will rise 4.5 percent for the November-December period. That would be less than the 5.1 percent gain of a year earlier.
Online retailers appeared to be doing well. Yahoo! Shopping, which features 200,000 merchants, reported a 70 percent increase in traffic on Friday, better than projected.