THE CROWDS ARE BUYING, SHOWING HIGHER CONFIDENCE

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The large crowds that have packed New Jersey's upscale Menlo Park Mall in recent days have local merchants talking about the possibility of a happy holiday season.

And for good reason.

Thanks to a reviving United States economy, American consumers are prying open their wallets and buying big ticket items such as camcorders. "There seems to be some pent-up demand," says Mary Jean Houde, a spokeswoman for Sears, Roebuck & Co., in Chicago.

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"Sears is cautiously optimistic," about spending during the holiday period, she says. "The trend has been up for a number of weeks now."

"We are very optimistic regarding the entire holiday shopping period, no matter what the final national sales figures look like for the [Thanksgiving] weekend," says Orren Knauer of K mart Corporation, in Troy, Mich. "The economy is improving, there is pent-up demand, and there's been a clear pickup in consumer confidence. Thus, we expect sales [for K mart] to be up 4 percent to 5 percent on a comparable store basis over last year at this time."

Through September, K mart sales were up about 2 percent. So if the 4 percent to 5 percent increase is reached during December, that should boost the year's sales increase to about 3 percent for K mart, he says. Last year, sales rose only about 2 percent over 1990.

"We're seeing a broad range of products being sold, but still mainly basics. In toys, for example, people are going for standards, such as Barbie dolls, or Lego [toys]."

The upswing in the US economy couldn't have come at a better time, according to retail analysts.

Last week the Commerce Department reported that the orders for big-ticket factory goods jumped 3.9 percent in October, the biggest gain in over a year.

And the Conference Board announced that its index of consumer confidence jumped 11 points to 65.5 in November, up from 54.6 percent last month.

"We're seeing a consistent, gradual recovery, including a rise in real income. So we can expect to see a moderately paced advance in consumer spending over the next four to six quarters," says Richard Rippe, chief economist for Prudential Securities Inc.

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