Originally created 11/29/97

The Christmas shopping season has arrived, but many just browsing



Shoppers jammed into the nation's stores Friday, but that didn't mean they were buying.

Many consumers have learned to wait for big sales as Christmas draws near, making the day after Thanksgiving the start of the holiday browsing season.

"I always wait until the last minute," said Donna Holly, while shopping in the White Marsh Mall just north of Baltimore. "In fact, I'm just looking around, not even shopping."

After a year of mediocre sales, retailers are going great lengths to get consumers to begin shopping early.

Doors opened at many stores well before dawn Friday, luring throngs with big discounts offered only to early risers.

Customers "came in the front door screaming" at a Wal-Mart in Fairmont, W.Va., when it opened at 6 a.m., said Elsie Matheny, who works in the toy section. Shoppers lined up at 6:30 a.m. to get the 30 percent discount coupons offered at the McAlpin's store in Cincinnati.

While there was plenty of mayhem and lines at cash registers, the Friday after Thanksgiving is losing its claim to be the year's biggest shopping day. Many consumers now delay their purchases until right before Christmas when stores historically slash prices to clear out inventory.

"This is only the first day," said Sharon Ballard while looking around at the Northpark Mall in Ridgeland, Miss.

For many stores, the trend toward a later shopping season is somewhat worrisome, especially after a less-than-stellar 1997 and disappointments the last two holiday seasons. Retailers count on the holidays for about half their annual sales and profits.

In 1996, the Friday after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday as its known in the trade, was the fifth-biggest shopping day of the year. The four other busiest days were in the 11 days before Christmas.

Black Friday has become more of a day to look for gift ideas rather than buy them, said John Konarski, vice president of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group.

Whether people were looking or buying, the stores were packed Friday. With Tickle Me Elmo still giggling in their heads, parents sought out this year's popular toys, including Barbie and Sesame Street dolls like Sing & Snore Ernie.

"It's a mad house going through there, like bumper cars," said Eric McKinnies, with a cart full of toys from Toys R Us in Hamilton Township, N.J. "They need stop lights in the aisles."

Despite record levels of consumer confidence and low inflation and unemployment, many consumers are still cutting back on Christmas.

According to a recent Associated Press poll by ICR of Media, Pa., nearly a third of Americans say they will spend less on gifts this Christmas than in the last few years. Fifty-six percent of those polled said spending will stay about the same in 1996, while 12 percent say they will spend more.

The Commerce Department reported Friday that Americans' personal incomes and spending grew 0.5 percent in October.

High credit card debt may also turn some shoppers away this year, while others may choose family vacations or gift certificates to spas over traditional Christmas gifts.

Debbie Bernneman of Charleston, W. Va., plans to buy fewer gifts this year, instead putting her money toward gym memberships for her relatives.

"It's something people need, something they can use all year and something we can do together," she said.

Still, the malls had their share of generous spenders.

At the Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C., Susan Knight spent over $500 in two hours and planned a third swing through the mall before quitting time.

"I'm going to get to $1,000 and then I'm going to stop and wait until next weekend," she said.