Holiday Cheer For Many Retailers, But Woe For Wal-Mart

With traffic jams, elbow jabs, and bleary eyes, Americans kicked off the holiday shopping season with gusto. In fact, many didn't even bother to wait for Black Friday, but instead started shopping before the Thanksgiving leftovers were put away, as many stores and malls around the country opened as early as midnight.

The National Retail Federation predicted Friday that Thanksgiving weekend would bring in almost $28 billion in retail sales--a significant chunk of the estimated $457 billion shoppers are expected to spend this season.

Based on polls released yesterday afternoon, the NRF said more than 140 million shoppers hit the stores during the weekend, spending an average of $360.15--up 18.9 percent from last year's $302.8. While women shoppers outnumbered men (47.9 percent versus 37.4 percent), men spent more--an average $420, compared with women, who spent $304.

According to the survey, some 36.2 percent of Black Friday shoppers arrived at their first shopping destination before sunrise (6 a.m.). By 9 a.m., more than half of shoppers (58.8 percent) said they had already visited one store. Men were more likely to wait in line than women, as 17.3 percent of men said they got to their first store by 4 a.m., compared to just 8 percent of women who arrived by that time.

The most popular items purchased were clothing or clothing accessories (41.4 percent) as well as books, CDs, DVDs, videos, or video games (41.4 percent), according to the NRF poll. Consumer electronics or computer-related accessories (33.3 percent) came next, followed by toys (28.3 percent), gift cards/gift certificates (17.6 percent), and home décor or home-related furnishings (17.4 percent).

While the Friday following Thanksgiving is not the biggest day in terms of sales, it is the biggest in terms of traffic, and gives customers a preview of what they'll buy in the weeks ahead.

So far, they seem to like what they see: "The holiday season is off to a good start at J.C. Penney," the company said in a release Saturday, with brisk traffic in all regions. "Specifically, merchandise categories such as home entertainment, team sports, jewelry, children's apparel, housewares, Christmas trim and women's shoes were most popular with customers on Friday."

The news was not so cheery for mass-merchandiser Wal-Mart, which Saturday reported another drop in same-store sales, with November sales declining 0.1 percent in the four-week period ending on Friday, Nov. 24.

What makes that news especially troubling for Wal-Mart is that after reporting disappointing October sales, it slashed prices on everything from baby food and turkeys to toys and electronics--but apparently not enough to goose sales.

Even its successes hurt Wal-Mart this weekend, when an unexpectedly large number of shoppers tried to use its Web site, which was not working for as much as 10 hours on Friday, the Associated Press reported.

Then on Saturday afternoon, two teenagers set off two homemade bombs inside a Wal-Mart in Skowhegan, Maine, causing hundreds of customers to be evacuated from the store when the acid bombs detonated. At least eight people were treated for irritation to their eyes and throat or ringing in their ears, CNN reported.

Separately, endurance artist David Blaine succeeded in escaping his shackles on New York's West 46th Street in time to escort children to a Target-sponsored shopping spree. Blaine was the centerpiece of a promotion for the retailer's two-day sale, and was suspended in a gyroscope-like contraption on Nov. 21. He broke free on Thanksgiving afternoon.

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