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Retail Merriment Reined In

'Black Friday' and 'Cyber Monday' hype aside, expectations are still tepid for the holidays.
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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Consumers may have shown some initial enthusiasm in the first official weekend of holiday shopping, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be clogging up stores for the rest of the season.

The day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, drew an estimated 147 million shoppers, up 4.8% over the year before, according to the National Retail Federation.

Another industry tracker, ShopperTrak, estimated that Black Friday sales grew 8.3%, while sales on Saturday rose 5.4%. But the average spending per customer was down 3.5%, reinforcing concerns that the holidays will generate only a modest jump in sales.

The National Retail Federation is expecting a 4% sales climb for November and December combined, the smallest increase for the industry since 2002. The trade group maintained its cautionary tone for the holidays after the big shopping weekend.

"Though Black Friday weekend was a complete success for many retailers, the results of the holiday season won't be determined until the last two weeks of December," said President and Chief Executive Tracy Mullin in a statement.

Retail stock trading Monday reflected this moderate view, with shares of most big chains losing steam after rallying Friday.


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, which jumped 5.7% Friday, recently was down 2.2% to $55.92. Likewise,

Circuit City

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was shedding 4.2% to $6.24 after soaring 19% the prior session.

Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst for the research firm NPD Group, characterizes Black Friday as a good, but not great, start to the holidays. He points out that the day only represents one-fifth of the season's sales.

"The good news is that it wasn't bad news," Cohen says.

He adds that Black Friday proved to be far more promotional this year than last year, with the average number of doorbuster sale items climbing to about 250 from 100. Last year, he says, retailers knocked down Black Friday prices on select items by about 33% on average, but this year, there were more bargains on storewide items marked down by as much as 50% to 60%.

Consumer electronics were once again king, as was the case last year, with items like

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GPS products and


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iPods reportedly among the hot gifts. Shares of Garmin recently were jumping 9% to $100.07, while Apple was up 2.3% to $175.53.

For the most part, shoppers marched past big-ticket items and instead snatched up the cheaper merchandise.

"While last year showed a greater emphasis on high-definition televisions, this year consumers were focused on lower-priced doorbusters like digital photo frames, laptops and cashmere sweaters," Mullins said.

Rick Weinhart, an analyst for BMO Capital Markets, says companies like

Best Buy

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and Circuit City could stand to benefit from the interest in consumer electronics, but they may also run into similar problems as last year, when heavy markdowns weighed on profits.

At the same time, he says he did not notice as many Black Friday promotions for Best Buy and Circuit City continuing through the weekend, and that might help them in the end.

"Margins won't be down dramatically but they're going to be weak," Weinhart predicts.

Discount chains like


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and Target could also come out as winners this holiday. A survey by the National Retail Federation showed that 55.1% of shoppers visited discount stores on Black Friday, up from 49.6% last year.

Weinhart says that may take away from Best Buy and Circuit City, especially as shoppers become more price-conscious amid the housing slump and a weakening economy.

"Given the consumer's focus on price, and the lower price points for mass-market adoption, that plays to a discount chain like Wal-Mart and Target," he says.

Now that the pivotal Black Friday has passed, retailers are entering the second stage of the holiday season, when they must decide how promotional to be.

Monday brought another overhyped shopping event dubbed "Cyber Monday" for its surge in online sales, and retailers ranging from

J.C. Penney

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Home Depot

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have broken out special discounts for Internet purchases. "Cyber Monday" is expected to generate more than $700 million in sales, according to Internet research firm ComScore.

Cohen says that some chains might see Black Friday's high volume of traffic as a promise of what's to come. But he adds that it would be a mistake for them to overlook the fact that many shoppers turned out to the stores for no other reason than the promotions. Some may have even completed their holiday purchases and won't be returning for the rest of the season, regardless of any new sales.

"It's going to get trickier as we get closer to the holidays," Cohen says.