Sales strong, but are holiday shoppers done?

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Published: November 29,2010

NEW YORK — Holiday shoppers gave retailers a happy start to the traditional start of the holiday shopping season over the weekend, crowding stores and malls more than last year.

Add strong spending earlier this month and robust sales online, and retailers head into “Cyber Monday” encouraged. Particularly because many shoppers were buying for themselves, in addition to gifts, though mostly where they saw bargains.

But retailers remain unsure how much people will spend before Christmas in an economy that’s still bumpy. Shoppers, grappling with an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, remain careful about spending and driven by deals.

Discounts, particularly early-morning specials, were deep enough that many shoppers say they bought more than they had planned. But some say that means they’re done, and they spent less than last year.

The heavy discounting and lower prices on some things, particularly LCD TVs, held down overall spending. On Friday, retailers at shopping malls had sales of $10.7 billion, an increase of 0.3 percent over last year, according to preliminary figures from ShopperTrak, a research firm that counts shoppers at 70,000 stores.

TV prices are falling almost twice as fast as they did earlier this year amid a glut. They’re selling for 15-20 percent less than Christmas 2009.

Earlier buying in November also stole some sales from Friday, said ShopperTrak co-founder Bill Martin. But 2.2 percent more customers came into stores on Black Friday than last year. ShopperTrak tracks sales at stores in shopping malls, not big discounters like Wal-Mart and Target, which draw much Black Friday spending.

The National Retail Federation trade group estimated on Sunday that 212 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 195 million last year. A fuller picture on spending will come Thursday when retailers report November revenue.

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