Consumers have hit the malls running – after bargains, hard-to-get toys, and the latest in electronic gizmos.
Overall sales for Friday rang up at $8.96 billion, up 6 percent from last year, according to ShopperTrack RCT Corp., which tracks sales at mall-based retailers. And it appears that at least some of the buying enthusiasm continued throughout the weekend.
"It appears it went well," says Patrice Duker, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "But there is still a lot of shopping to be done."
A good start to the season would relieve some of the anxiety that is starting to build up about the US economy. On Friday, some of this concern was reflected in a falling US dollar and stock market. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 46 to 12340 on Friday.
However, a strong holiday season could help to ameliorate some of those concerns. "If you get off to a good start, you hold your breath that it continues," says Anthony Chan, chief economist at JP Morgan Private Client Services in New York.
Many shoppers were lured to stores by heavily advertised bargains on such items as flat-screen televisions, women's apparel, and jewelry. Retailers added $15 or $20 gift cards for purchases over a minimum amount. Some malls gave out hot drinks, and a few added massages to help take the stress out of the stampede.
"Some of the deals have even surprised us – I almost got up early to go shopping," says Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation in Washington.
While Ms. Grannis slept, employees at Best Buy on Fifth Avenue in New York arrived on Friday to open the store at 5 a.m. and found a line that stretched for two city blocks. The chain had advertised "door-buster" sales on camcorders ($170 savings), plasma TVs ($800 off), and a $50 reduction on MP3 players.
But it was the $2.99 DVDs that attracted Allison Franklin and Priya Ravindran, both students at the State University of New York at Oswego. "We got up at 5:15 a.m.," said Ms. Franklin, who was also loaded down with bags of outerwear (two for $10) from Old Navy. "We actually wanted to get up earlier."
Even some of those huddled at home away from the teeming masses couldn't resist the urge to buy: Both Wal-Mart and Disney's websites experienced disruptions on Friday, which the companies blamed on higher-than-expected traffic.
The "door-buster" deals definitely drew crowds, but some retailers got more than they could handle. As thousands of customers struggled to get inside, fistfights broke out in malls in Murray, Utah; West Nyack, NY; and Orlando, Fla.
In addition, while the discounting gets consumers inside the store, Mr. Chan worries that retailers were "front-loading" their holiday season, quickly absorbing consumers' holiday budgets with sales. "When all is said and done, it may not be as strong as last year," he says.
East Coast retailers were buoyed by moderate temperatures and clear skies, which allowed shoppers to browse without umbrellas. Inside his scented candle shop, proprietor Dave Lant, proclaimed the weather "ideal." But he added, "The last two weeks, we need it to be colder to make people actually feel like Christmas."
That's likely to happen, says Paul Walsh, a senior meteorologist at Planalytics, in Wayne, Pa. "The end of next week, it should start to cool off," he predicts. This would be a contrast to last December when it was very cold at the end of November but then warmed up prior to Christmas.
The first week in December used to be the peak for retailer Harry & David, based in Metford, Ore. Now it's moved to Dec. 18, says Denise Tedaldi, vice president for merchandising. "Part of the reason is because we have allowed customers who want to order later to do so," says Ms. Tedaldi. Her company's last day for Christmas delivery is Dec. 22. "If we say we can't deliver on time, they call someone else."
In fact, most retailers expect the rush to be later this month with the biggest day likely to be Dec. 23, the Saturday before Christmas.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.