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Mixed views on post-Thanksgiving shopping

Nationwide, “encouraging” is the buzzword in economic circles.

Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill called early figures from the Thanksgiving shopping weekend “encouraging news” about the recovery of the U.S. economy, technically in a recession accelerated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A senior economic advisor for Houston-based TeleCheck, a check-validating firm for 27,000 stores, said the 2.4% jump for same-store sales Nov. 23 was “an encouraging early indication of spending for the season.”

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, reported its best single sales day ever on Green Friday — $1.25 billion at its 2,700 stores — with top-selling items that included toys, small appliances and home electronics.

But encouraging signs may not be enough to buoy the holiday retail season nationally — or locally — particularly at mom-and-pop stores and regional malls. Even though malls launched early store hour openings and offered deep discounts to lure shoppers, about eight million fewer shoppers — a 7.5% drop — visited the nation’s malls Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 23-24) than a year ago, according to a survey conducted by Chicago-based RCT Systems Inc., a mall traffic tracking firm.

“Mall traffic was up 5% for the Thanksgiving weekend,” said Jeff Snyder, manager of the Mall at Barnes Crossing in Tupelo. “We normally have 10% to 12% traffic increases for this weekend each year, but we’re pleased with our increase. People seem to be doing a good job at going about business as usual. Final numbers are not available, but we feel encouraged by what we are hearing.”

Overall, sales seem strong, Snyder said.

“We opened a new 5-7-9 and Body Shop last month,” he said. “Both are doing great. 5-7-9 was tops in their district, while Body Shop’s sales have exceeded projections. With new game releases, Babbages’ store at Barnes Crossing ranked No. 35 out of their entire company as of Monday, Nov. 26.”

In Mississippi, post-Thanksgiving tornados that ripped through the Delta and Madison County — and bad weather throughout much of the state — put a damper on holiday shopping.

“(Green) Friday was showing a very positive increase, but having three tornadoes within 12 miles and continuous watches and warnings on Saturday made Friday’s gains disappear,” said David Meadows, manager of Turtle Creek Mall in Hattiesburg. “Saturday sales picked up in the afternoon but it was too late to regain the loss.”

Meadows also reported single-digit sales increases, adding that jewelry sold well and fall apparel sales needed “a boost from cool weather.”

John Evans, owner of Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, said sales were up slightly Friday (Nov. 23).

“But it would have been better if the weather hadn’t turned so bad,” he said. “Since then, sales have been up by a very small percentage. I think people are going to wait until the very last minute because they want to hold onto their money as long as they can.”

Vicki Miller, marketing director for Edgewater Mall in Biloxi, said the week before Thanksgiving was “even bigger than Friday after, which was huge, because people wanted to beat the crowd.”

“Saturday was flat and Sunday was good, not great, but the first part

of the week after Thanksgiving, our merchants were very happy,” Miller said. “Several had told me they were terrified about what type of Christmas we were facing. They expected major decreases and were pleasantly surprised that people are shopping.”

Miller quickly added that she’s also seeing indications of shoppers waiting until the last minute to purchase collectibles or high-priced ticket items.

“Shoppers want to make sure everything is still OK with the economy and their jobs,” Miller said.

Guy Boyll, manager of Highland Village in Jackson, said this holiday season is a “guessing game” for specialty retailers.

“People usually shop at specialty centers like ours after they’ve looked around elsewhere,” he said. “But from the looks of the parking lot, it seems we’re strong from the get-go. I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Even though Persnickety, a specialty store in Madison, has been open only a few months, owner Sherri Hilton said business has been brisk.

“Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving were two of the top five days we’ve ever had,” she said. “In fact, we even had some regular customers come in Friday and Saturday and turn around and say ‘it’s just too crowded. I’ll come back next week.’ But traffic hasn’t dropped off. People are at the door before we open at 10 a.m. and we have to run them out at 6 o’clock. It’s busy all day long.”

Hilton said she’s called for replacement inventory on several items and can’t get any more before Christmas.

“I probably will have to fill in with some other things I haven’t carried before,” she said.

Even though Green Friday may be the busiest shopping day — and a barometer of the holiday retail season — it’s not the biggest shopping day. Since 1995, it has ranked no higher than fifth, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The Saturday before Christmas is typically when shoppers spend the most money.

“I feel that this holiday season will be better than retailers and mall operators anticipated,” Snyder said. “We are seeing signs of stronger consumer confidence.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.


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