Spending: Early Holiday Shopping Has Merchants Optimistic

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The nation's merchants -- both in stores and online -- appeared pleased with the first results from the holiday shopping weekend that was kicked off in the predawn darkness of Black Friday and continued early Saturday.

Taubman Centers -- which operates such malls as the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Ill., and the Stamford Town Center in Connecticut -- said a majority of its centers reported year-over-year sales increases, with steady traffic into the evening hours.

"The hot categories throughout the evening included apparel, electronics, shoes and boots, and bath and beauty predominantly," said Karen Mac Donald, Taubman's communications director, in an e-mail.

J.C. Penney said Saturday that sales were strong at stores across the country on Black Friday. Top sellers included gemstone and gold jewelry, luggage sets, women's cashmere-blend pea coats and a device that projects TV image onto a blank wall.

Shoppers also stayed home to do their thing. The average online order on Black Friday rose 35% from last year, to $170.19, according to online retail analyst Coremetrics -- an indication that people may be looking to buy gifts after a year of economic woes.

"The healthy jump in the average amount of money people are willing to spend online this year suggests consumers have adjusted their shopping patterns to the reality of the economic downturn," said John Squire, chief strategy officer, Coremetrics, in a statement. "They're thriftier, they're savvier and every one of them wants to be the best bargain hunter out there."

While people spent more online, Coremetrics said they were spending less time browsing, indicating that they know what they want, and how much they want to pay for it.

Online shopping will garner more attention Monday -- the so-called Cyber Monday -- when many Americans will take advantage of computers at work to shop for gifts.

"Retailers came out swinging for Black Friday, offering some of the holiday season's lowest prices on electronics, appliances, apparel and toys," said Tracy Mullin, president of the NRF, an industry trade group, in a statement. "Budget-focused shoppers seemed to be pleasantly surprised with post-Thanksgiving deals, which many retailers will extend into Saturday and even Sunday."

Although Black Friday seemed to be missing the usual mayhem associated with it, the good news for merchants was that shoppers eagerly spent money on toys, cashmere sweaters, Snuggie blankets and gadgets at juicy discounts .

"What I've noticed so far is that [consumer] traffic is on par with last year, but people are buying more," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst with market research firm NPD Group.

"They are going into stores with the pure intention of spending money. They have their stores, products and prices all picked out," he said.

The first independent indication of just how many consumers bagged bargains at the malls themselves will be available later Saturday when store sales traffic tracker ShopperTrak releases its Black Friday report.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is expected to release its report Sunday estimating how much shoppers spent over the Black Friday weekend and where they shopped.

Compared to previous years, Cohen said the Black Friday atmosphere appeared to "be more tame."

Wal-Mart, which saw Black Friday 2008 tainted by the death of a temporary worker in a shopper stampede in Valley Stream, N.Y., said the day passed without much incident -- although a.store in Upland, Calif., was forced to shut its doors after shoppers got a bit too rowdy.

"We've heard of a few scuffles among customers, but overall it has been a very safe event," a Wal-Mart spokesman said.

"Look, retailers have been educating consumers for days before Black Friday on what their deals are going to be and on what items," said Cohen. "That's partly why we're not seeing the frenziness."

Sears spokesman Tom Aiello said he thought Black Friday crowds outside its stores were "a little bit more than last year."

The department store chain reported an average of 300 to 400 shoppers lined up for its 4 a.m. opening Friday.

The top sellers at Sears included a Craftsman drill set for $39.99, down from its original price of $79.99, as well as home-related goods such as luggage, comforters and the Snuggie blanket.

"Snuggies are selling fast for $9.99 at out Kmart stores," Aiello said. "And our layaway section is jammed. People are buying the special deals and putting them on layaway."

Jim Fielding, president of Disney Store Worldwide, said Black Friday was a big day for his company's 205 U.S. retail stores. He said hot sellers were toddler dolls, classic dolls, Buzz and Woody action figures from "Toy Story" and $10 plush toys.

"I would say that shoppers are focused on value," said Fielding. "But you could find value at $10 or at $50."

This year, more retailers opened their stores at midnight instead of the typical 5 a.m. Black Friday openings.

Fielding said the extra pre-dawn hours of business worked for Disney stores. "We're able to better manage the demand and spread [customer] traffic throughout the day," he said. "This may not become the norm for Black Friday for all retailers, but I think we will continue to be committed to it for the foreseeable future."

Elsewhere, Zhu Zhu, the electronic pet hamster, was flying off shelves at Toys R Us and emerged as the frontrunner for this year's must-have toy. (Black Friday shoppers hear the call of Zhu Zhu)

Toys R Us, the nation's leading specialty toy retailer, opened its stores at midnight on Thanksgiving. CEO Gerald Storch told CNNMoney.com that about 1,000 people lined up on average at his company's stores.

In addition to Zhu Zhu, Storch said other hot sellers included Princess Tiana dolls, from the new Disney animated movie "The Princess and the Frog," as well as video games and crafts products such as the Paperoni 3-D picture set.

The retailer has been aggressive in price cutting this season as it does battle with discounters Wal-Mart and Target. "History has shown that economic downturns are a great time for those who are aggressive, so we're very aggressive this year," Storch said.

The day after Thanksgiving is dubbed "Black Friday" because it traditionally marks the day of the year when retailers finally move out of the red, indicating losses, and into the black, representing profits.

But despite the hype surrounding Black Friday as the "unofficial" start to holiday gift shopping, it's not the busiest shopping day of the year. That day invariably is the Saturday before Christmas, which is Dec. 19 this year.

Still, for retailers, November and December are crucial sales months because the combined period can account for half, or more, of their sales and profits for the full year.

Although retailers know that they're facing an uphill battle to grow sales amid a tepid spending environment, the hope is that this year's holiday season will at least be an improvement from the previous year.

The NRF expects holiday sales to decline 1% versus a 3.4% drop in holiday sales the previous year.

The group maintains that even though many Americans have had a year to adjust to the recession, continued job losses and stagnant income growth are forcing many consumers to restrain their shopping impulses and shop only for necessities.

Overall, more bargain hunters are expected to hit stores on Black Friday and the weekend. The total is expected to be about 134 million, up from 128 million a year ago, according to the NRF.

"More shoppers will come out today than a year ago," said Britt Beemer, a retail industry expert and chairman of America's Research Group. "But consumers are so concerned about money that if and when the deals are gone, so are they."

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