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PARAMUS, N.J. -- It's just past 10 a.m. on Black Friday. Nancy O'Brien has been here at the
Garden State Plaza
since 7 a.m., and she's a little stressed out. "It's not my kind of shopping," she says, cell phone in one hand and
shopping bags in the other, her eyes darting. "I'm looking for specific items that are on sale."
It's not just the bargain hunting that has her anxious. "Don't ask me about the stock market or who's going to be the president," she says. "I'm worried about dimples! I'm worried about pregnant chads!"
So, most likely, are retailers. Most analysts and economists predicted a relatively tepid holiday sales season even before Nov. 7; the uncertainty about who'll be next to let his friends sleep in the
Lincoln Bedroom is only adding to skittishness generated by gas prices, the
and a sense that the best of economic times may be behind us.
C. Britt Beemer, founder and CEO of
America's Research Group
, said he had to put off his annual holiday survey because the election chaos meant consumers just weren't ready to talk about their holiday shopping plans. When he released his annual findings on Nov. 16, he projected sales gains of 3.8% compared with last year's 6.8%. (
looked into the holiday sales season in a recent series,
The Malls Get Decked.)
The scene at the Garden State Plaza would seem to confirm a slower rate of holiday sales growth. At midmorning, many stores were still empty; one of the longest lines is at the
Muffins & More Cafe
, and only a handful of families wait with children to sit on Santa's lap. A
store attracts a few browsers, but a saleswoman deflects a query about business. "It's still early," she says. "The big action is still in the parking lot."
Of course, no one is ripping up his or her credit cards this holiday season. This is America, where shopping has been elevated to a leisure activity and unemployment is still 3.9%. Even on a lackluster Black Friday, there are pockets of retail activity. But the action seems to be centered around the "sale" signs.
upper floors are nearly empty, its shoe department is packed, with shoppers clustered around sales racks offering discounts of 50% to 60%.
Abercrombie & Fitch
is noisy and packed with teen-agers and the parents who fund them. And
, a unit of
, is positively hopping; shoppers sift through a pile of shirts marked down to $7 and the lines are 10-deep.
Outside Old Navy, Leighton Daley stands guard over several bags from
. They're bulging with Barbies for his daughter and his niece. He's been here since 8 a.m. "Last time I came later in the afternoon, and a lot of the stuff I wanted was gone," he says. Daley came from Brooklyn, N.Y., to shop the sales he saw advertised in the paper yesterday. "I'm done with the majority of my shopping," he says.
Retailers are hoping he -- and the other consumers roaming the malls on Black Friday -- come back for more.