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HOLIDAY SHOPPING UP 4%
Despite Fears of Dismal Season, Shoppers Show Up, Although Mostly Online & at Discount Stores
With the economy slowing and unemployment rising, the forecast for the holiday shopping spree wasn’t a very cheery one. Many economists saw this year’s spending fest declining by 1% from last year’s numbers.

But, according to Monday’s Wall Street Journal, in the season’s inaugural long weekend, shoppers showed up (though not in overwhelming numbers) and their purchases were sensible and selective. One estimate put Friday’s sales at 4% higher than last year.

Sales were driven by merchandise tied to the Harry Potter movie, video game consoles like Sony’s PlayStation2, Nintendo’s GameCube and the Microsoft Xbox. Other hits included DVD players and VCRs.

Deep discounts across the board lured shoppers to the malls, although not quite in the numbers of previous holiday seasons.

The New York Times reported that the number of visitors to shopping malls was down 8.1% compared with the figure on that day a year earlier, according to the RCT National Retail Traffic Index. For Saturday, traffic was down 6.8% compared with the day a year earlier, which was also seen as a good sign.

But discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target actually saw sales and traffic increases. And Internet merchants such as Amazon.com, America Online and Bluelight.com (Kmart’s online presence) reported healthy increases in sales. Yahoo reported that the number of shoppers coming through its web portal was up 60% compared with last year.

At 32 days, this year’s Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period is unusually long, and that’s not necessarily good news for the bean counters. The last time the shopping season was that long was 1990, the Journal reports, a year in which many retailers’ holiday receipts actually dropped.

As one analyst put it, "It is certainly not what retailers as a group would like to see. It is also not a doomsday start at all. It is better than a lot of analysts had expected. Retailers should be pleased."

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