Augusta-area merchants reported Friday's holiday sales as strong or better than last year even before they completed their final tally of the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year.
"This is the bell-ringer for Christmas. When you get here (Thanksgiving), everyone sort of wakes up," said Jeff Carroll, J.B. White's store manager in Aiken.
Economists predicted nationwide sales growth of 5 percent above inflation. Georgia retailers should do better at 6 percent, they said.
Overall, the store has done "more per hour than we did last year," said Jeff Pitzing, manager of Belk Department Store in Aiken Mall.
"Sales appear to be pretty strong and stable," said Pam Rascon, marketing manager at Augusta Mall. Shoppers showed up for the 7 a.m. opening of stores and stayed all day, compared to past years when the number of shoppers built as the day wore on.
By mid-afternoon, sales figures were about what they were on the same day last year for Casual Hut in National Hills Shopping Center, according to sales clerk Megan Goodell. A 25-percent discount both years sparked buyers' interest, she said.
Other merchants said they expected to see even better results when they totaled the day's take.
"Achieving a year-over-year increase should not be very difficult because the 1996 retail season was not all that strong and because this year has an additional shopping day between Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Jeff Humphreys, director of economic forecasting at the University of Georgia.
"Most households are able to manage their monthly payments. Lower mortgage payments are allowing many of them to carry higher levels of installment credit comfortably," he said.
Hot sellers so far have been sterling silver accessories, particularly charms. In men's clothes, fashion color shirts are selling well, White's Mr. Carroll said.
"Scented candles and picture frames are popular," he added. "Candles are hot in general throughout the country and also picture frames."
At Aiken Mall, Belk Department Store has seen the most sales at its jewelry and cosmetics counters, said Mr. Pitzing.
"Those have really been busy," he said.
At Georgia Pawn and Jewelry on Gordon Highway in Augusta, though, people had money to buy rather than items to pawn for cash, according to John Miller, store manager. "Most people are picking up their stuff. Usually, we have more pawners. But they have money now," he said.
Solid job growth, bargain prices and lack of concern about stock-market fluctuations have given consumers confidence to buy, said Mark Vitner, economist with First Union.
Georgia Pawn's customers were stocking up on video games and electronic appliances, following Dr. Humphreys' prediction that consumers this year would head for practical items and inexpensive frills.
At Best Buy at Augusta West, checkout lines were backed up 50 people deep for more than an hour. The annoyance was worthwhile to one man who said he saved $400 on a computer for himself. Another shopper said the electronic game she bought for her son was his reward for joining her at gift hunting.
"I came because it was the only way to get him up at 6 to go to White's," said Debbie Helwig. "Sometimes you can get good deals today, and by getting an early start I like to beat the crowds."
Augusta Exchange, a new shopping center that's not yet fully open, hummed with activity Friday even as workers were putting finishing touches on some of the open stores. No merchants around town admitted to losing sales to the new center.
"It's helping. It's bringing more people to town," said Sylvia Lau of The Dress Barn in Augusta Mall.
The largest crowds were in the area of Augusta Mall. Police blocked lanes to prevent left turns and to keep traffic flowing. Extra parking places and an entrance that were added to the mall's lot this year eliminated parking snarls, Ms. Rascon said.
Some shoppers did face frustration, though. By 10:30 a.m., Toys "R" Us had run out of Tickle Me Elmos and some types of Barbie dolls.
"To be up so early, they have been in a good mood," observed Jill Francis, a sales clerk at Leather Loft in Augusta Mall.
Lillian Stephens, her daughter and a friend began the trek at 5:30 a.m., as they do every year. Four hours later, they had bought breakfast and gifts in five stores.
"This is my first day. I have it all to do," she said with a laugh.
I.L. Hutchins had another approach to beating the crowds.
"We do it later because all the kids are grown and I just have one grandson that I buy for," he said. "I wouldn't go nowhere near that mall. That place is packed."
Staff Writer Kathy Steele contributed to this story.