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Retailers see tepid start to holiday season

NEW YORK -- The start of the holiday season was respectable but unimpressive for many of the nation's retailers, with consumers jamming stores and malls on Friday and pulling back as the weekend wore on.

Big chains including J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. were pleased with their sales. But Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was less fortunate -- the industry leader said its sales in the seven days that ended Friday were disappointing, and the company lowered forecasts for November.

"Friday overall was strong, but Saturday was weak and disappointing, so together it was only a modest two-day performance," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers. "Still, I continue to believe that this is not a bellwether for how the season will end up."

Wally Brewster, spokesman at Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which operates 224 malls, said sales and traffic were strong Friday, but "stabilized" the rest of the weekend. He expects sales for the weekend to increase in the low single digits.

Wal-Mart's holiday weekend sales suffered because it didn't offer the deep discounts it did in past years, analysts said. Penney and Sears did better with two days of big price breaks. Wal-Mart said it now expects same-store sales to be up only 0.7 percent, instead of the projected 2 percent to 4 percent.

Total retail sales were up 10.8 percent on Friday compared to the day after Thanksgiving last year, said ShopperTrak. which tallies results from 30,000 outlets. It expects to release Saturday's results today.

The first weekend of the season, while important, is not as critical as the last 10 days before Christmas. So, despite the lackluster start, Niemira still forecasts a sales gain of 3 percent to 4 percent for the holiday period.

The National Retail Federation expects that total sales, excluding restaurant and auto sales, will rise 4.5 percent for the November-December period. That would be less than the 5.1 percent gain of a year earlier.

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