HOLIDAY SHOPPING Retailers remain in the doldrums



Analysts disagree on whether the new terrorist alert will curtail shopping.
NEW YORK (AP) -- The nation's retailers spent a glum weekend before Christmas after a much-hoped for sales bonanza failed to materialize, though business at discounters and luxury stores appeared to be brisk, according to analysts.
The federal government's raised terror alert status was the latest headache for merchants, which are now counting on heavy shopping this week to meet their goals.
"The threat won't have an effect this weekend, because most people don't know about the alert," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C. "But it could reduce retailers' ability to have a huge business on Monday and Tuesday, and the week after Christmas. It may likely make people who are close to being done decide they've purchased enough."
Some representatives of retail companies and organizations disagreed.
"Consumers learned to be vigilant, and I don't think this will have an effect" on their shopping, said Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Taubman Centers Inc., which owns and manages 31 shopping centers in 13 states.
Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman at the National Retail Federation, agreed, saying that "since Sept. 11, consumers have learned to go on with their lives," and she doesn't foresee traffic being hurt.
Hurting in the middle
Traffic and business were heavy over the weekend at discounters and luxury stores. But at midpriced department stores and mall-based apparel chains, which deepened price cuts on sweaters, jewelry and other items, sales were uneven, continuing the trend seen throughout the season, Beemer said.
"I think it was a very strong weekend, but I don't think it was as big as retailers needed," said Beemer, based on interviews with retail clients. He added that consumers "were looking at the lowest price in each category of merchandise."
At the Valley West Mall in West Des Moines, Iowa, Connie Ferree was shopping with her mother for 50 to 60 gifts for her relatives, but she said she's spending far less this December.
"The job situation is bad," said Ferree, who has been struggling to find a job in Ames, Iowa. She said she had begun her shopping last week, and was hunting discounted items.
Still hoping
Despite a recovering economy, merchants struggled with modest sales throughout the season and were counting even more for a sales surge this past weekend after two weekends of Northeast snowstorms. Retailers also are holding out hope that the last-minute spending in the three days before Christmas will help merchants meet their sales goals.
Tolley noted that the National Retail Federation is still sticking to its holiday forecast for a 5.7 percent gain in total sales from a year ago.
In the past few years, the Saturday before Christmas has been the busiest day of the season. Last year, the Monday before Christmas was the second biggest sales day.

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