Net, Schmet: Shoppers Flock to Bricks-and-Mortar Stores

An anecdotal look at a suburban shopping mall suggests this will be a good year for retailers, even with online competition. Plus, help us predict the year's must-have toy.
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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- The question that matters to Wall Street is not whether the stores are crowded this "Black Friday," but whether they're more crowded than they were last year.

Yes is the answer, according to the anecdotal post-holiday romp by this Mall Rat. Cars are backed up four deep just to enter the parking garage at

The Westchester Mall

, the tony shopping spot here that is anchored by

Nordstrom

(JWN) - Get Report

, and is located blocks away from

Saks Fifth Avenue

(SKS)

and

Bloomingdales

, a division of

Federated Department Stores

(FD)

.

The scene inside is in stark contrast to 1997, when this reporter was forced to look elsewhere for signs of holiday spending on Black Friday (the day retailers are said to push from the red to black). At that time, this mall was so empty lines were the exception, not the rule. In '98, Friday shopping-mall traffic did seem stronger than 1997, but nowhere near this year's action.

The queue of customers waiting to check out of

Banana Republic

, a division of the

Gap

(GPS) - Get Report

, is 16 folks long. Who could resist those downy-soft, cashmere scarves for $70 apiece that I (longingly) noticed were quickly vanishing from a table near the store's entrance?

Nine West

(a division of

Jones Apparel Group

(JNY)

, too, is so swamped it's tough to avoid stepping on someone's discarded shoe. Boxes waiting to be bagged pile up at the register. One teenager looks at her friend and says, "Gee, I like everything in here," unleashing a ripple of excited giggles between them.

Indeed, with roughly seven out of 10 shoppers carrying multiple bags, it doesn't appear that many people have forsaken the crowded malls for their computers today. Why haven't they saved themselves the trouble and shopped online?

"It's a family outing," says Jane Goldman, who is scouring the aisles of

Toys R Us

(TOY)

with her two daughters while her husband and son are visiting

The Sports Authority

(TSA)

.

Shopping as entertainment is especially true the day after Thanksgiving, when most people are off from work and spending time with their families.

And there are other charming features of the walls and windows of a mall.

"I don't know exactly what I'm looking for, and I like to browse around," says Arthur Cohen, who is holding a Gap bag and visiting the mall with his wife and son.

Then there are Pat and Julie Durant, who are hesitant to shop online after their son ordered a bunch of clothes that had to be returned. "If I had my choice, I'd buy in a store," Pat says.

Nevertheless, Chris Vroom, an analyst with

Thomas Weisel Partners

, expects e-tailing to be the fastest-growing segment of the market this season. He estimates average household spending online this year will more than double, to $117 from $47 last year. Still, that's less than 1% of total retail dollars.

Overall, Vroom expects this season to be "the best Christmas in five years." He is forecasting a 6% rise in sales for stores opened at least one year.

That's about in line with

National Retail Federation

projections, which are based on continuing strength in employment, income, consumer confidence, housing values and the stock market.

A survey commissioned by the NRF and conducted by

Deloitte & Touche

found that 79% of consumers will spend more or the same as they spent last year; 21% said they will spend less.

Despite those rosy projections, not all retailers were pulling the customers Friday.

Pottery Barn

, a division

Williams-Sonoma

(WSM) - Get Report

, feels as richly decorated as someone's home -- but didn't have enough customers to give it a homey feeling. And

Kay-Bee Toys

, a division of

Consolidated Stores

(CNS) - Get Report

, only has two customers at the register.

By contrast, Toys R Us, for all its troubles, had a steady stream of customers piling

Barbies

and

Rock n' Roll Elmos

into big blue shopping carts.

Todd Slater, an analyst with

Lazard Freres

, points out that tracking sales for the holiday season is a lot trickier than measuring one day's receipts.

He says the pattern over the past decade has been a strong Thanksgiving, followed by weakness leading up to Christmas as shoppers wait until the last minute. The season typically closes with a rash of buying that helps retailers in the sprint to make their numbers.

"We have every reason to believe the fourth quarter will be very robust for the retail group. But between now and Christmas I expect a lot noise on both sides of the equation."

Friday, the only noise was music to retailers' ears: the sound of cash registers ringing.

We are desperately searching for this year's must-have toy. You know, the one that will cause perfectly sane parents to fight like animals over the last Tickle-Me-Somebody. Or to feverishly scour the black market and pay three times retail for the

Furby

-like figure that, if not found under the tree by Christmas morning, will cause little tykes to wail all over the world.

Sure, there's

Pokemon

. But let's try to get more creative.

So, lend a hand and tell us what toy your child will absolutely, positively have to have this holiday. Pokemon doesn't count.

Hot Toy

Name:

Email Address:

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