Lured by big discounts and fears that must-have holiday items will be in short supply, consumers crowded malls and strip centers over the Thanksgiving weekend, snapping up video games, DVDs and anything to do with Harry Potter.
However, the weekend's receipts won't be the bonanza some merchants hoped for.
Early-bird specials and other bargains from big chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. attracted consumers who were already frugal before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted them to further curtail their spending. The come-ons worked, giving the value-priced retailers satisfactory sales.
But other merchants, particularly department stores and specialty stores that have been languishing for months, barely met their modest expectations for the weekend, the start of the holiday buying rush.
"Retailers pushed real hard. Traffic was strong, but sales were less strong," said Jeffrey Feiner, managing director of Lehman Brothers Inc., who estimated sales at the 22 retailers he follows were at best unchanged from last year's Thanksgiving weekend.
In fact, Feiner said his holiday forecast of a 2 percent gain in sales of stores open at least a year might be too optimistic.
"Most stores entered the shopping period with low expectations, and many met those expectations this weekend," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report. "But deep down they were hoping to get better than what they got. There was a lot of window shopping."
Barnard and others said sales were solid Friday, but cited a sharper-than-expected drop-off in sales on Saturday and Sunday.
Meanwhile, TeleCheck Services Inc., a check approval service, reported sales paid for by check at stores open at least a year rose 2.4 percent on Friday from last year. Checks account for about a third of retail spending and remain second to cash as the most popular method of payment. The increase was in line with its forecast for a 2 percent gain.
The Thanksgiving weekend isn't necessarily a good indicator of how retailers will perform for the entire season. In the past few years, the weekend accounted for less than 10 percent of sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
More importantly, the weekend after Thanksgiving is seen as a barometer of consumers' willingness to spend, and given the current difficult climate, analysts were scrutinizing consumers' every move.
To spur sales, retailers are giving bigger and earlier discounts than last year, letting shoppers haggle over prices and coming up with some unconventional enticements. For example, Sears, Roebuck and Co. on Saturday offered 10 percent off on all items, even those already discounted, from 7 a.m to noon.
"I kind of feel like we're better off this year because the sales are better," said Stacy Kosub, a 27-year-old attorney from Wichita Falls, Texas, who shopped at the Vista Ridge Mall in the Dallas suburb of Lewisville. "Everyone has knocked everything so low because of the anticipated drop-off. I've actually spent more."
Still, consumers' caution and changed priorities were quite evident. Barnard said more shoppers were using cash instead of credit cards.
"I'm buying a little less, but spending more time on what I buy, and spending more time with the family too," said Marsha Fowler, from Elkview, W.Va., shopping at Charleston Town Center Mall.
Some online retailers reported strong sales. Yahoo! Shopping saw a 70 percent increase in sales on Friday and Saturday, according to Robert Solomon, vice president and general manager.
Kmart's Bluelight.com saw sales up 48 percent on Friday compared to the same time last year, said spokesman Dave Karraker.
Sales were driven by merchandise tied to the Harry Potter movie, video game consoles like PlayStation2, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, and GameCube, as well as Leapfrog's LeapPad. Other hits included DVD players and VCRs.
Meanwhile, in shopping centers, Wal-Mart set a record for one-day sales, bringing in more than $1.25 billion Friday at the company's domestic Wal-Mart stores, Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets. Top-selling items included home electronics, toys and small appliances. That figure was up from $1.1 billion a year ago.
Other retailers were less fortunate. Karen MacDonald, spokeswoman at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers, said sales might have run slightly ahead of last year at its 31 malls.
Wally Brewster, senior vice president of corporate marketing at Chicago-based General Growth Properties, said a sampling of 40 out of 140 malls found sales were up 2 percent to 5 percent on Friday.
Michael Gould, chairman of Bloomingdale's, estimated the weekend's sales were a "bit above expectations," although business was difficult Saturday at its Manhattan flagship store, hurt by a drop in tourism. The store accounts for about 28 percent of the retailer's total sales.
Gould called business "OK" outside of Manhattan on Saturday.