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Shopping season start cheers retailers
Retail sales got off to a strong start over the weekend nationally and in Minnesota. The results from the traditional start of the holiday shopping season trumped projections of lackluster sales. But skeptics say it's too soon to predict consumers will leave their caution in the parking lot.

St. Paul, Minn. — Prices dropped and shoppers shopped. At the Rosedale Mall north of St. Paul, assistant marketing manager Liz Ostrander characterizes the weekend this way: Friday the parking lot was gauged to be 91-percent full. And that was all shoppers. Mall employees parked offsite and were shuttled in. Ostrander says sales increased between 4 and 6 percent over last year.

"Considering the economy and the way the trends have been going, we are very pleased with this past weekend. It was greater than anyone anticipated. Hopefully it will continue through the holiday season," she said.

Minnesota's biggest retail firms -- Target and Best Buy -- release their November sales results later this week. Until then, they're offering only a few tidbits of information about Friday's results. Best Buy spokeswoman Lisa Hawks says early bird deals such as a DVD player for forty bucks after a mail-in rebate drew crowds even at 6 a.m.

"Actually we had lots of folks anticipating the Best Buy's early store openings Friday morning. And had groups ranging from 60-75 on the low end, to up to 1,000 on the high end.

Target Corporation reported many lines of up to 500 people waiting for their 7 a.m. Friday opening. The company says it appeared the number of shoppers was about the same as last year, but customers were buying more items.

Target says one item flew off the shelves to the company's surprise. A set of two stainless steel trash cans with pop-up lids for less than $15.

Nationally, post-Thanksgiving retail sales posted a double-digit percentage increase according to ShopperTrak RCT. The results appear to undermine predictions of holiday sales growth ranging from lackluster to grim.

"The shopping from this holiday weekend portend a good holiday season for Minnesota retailers," said Buzz Anderson, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association in St. Paul. After canvassing large and small stores in Minnesota on Monday, Anderson says malls and stores were packed and the good weather matched the overall mood. If the weekend is any indication, he says, sales may best the four-percent increase the National Retail Federation is projecting.

"It serves as a bit of a bellwether about what Minnesotans are thinking and how confident they are and just about all the people I talked to said people were out in full force and people really seemed to be willing to open their wallets and start their holiday shopping," according to Anderson.

But others say it's too soon to be sure the economic Grinch threatening holiday sales this year has turned a new leaf. Retail industry forecaster and consultant Kurt Barnard says comparisons between this year's post Thanksgiving weekend and last year's are meaningless.

"Last year there were six more shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Consumers were under much less pressure, and retailers also were under much less pressure to lower prices," he said.

Barnard says the pressure on retailers this year produced a sackful of discounts over the weekend. "Seldom have we seen such an extraordinary bargain hunt. It really seems that the consumers were out literally looking at prices; not buying the product, but buying the price. Never mind what the product was all about," he said.

Barnard says the surprise success of Target's garbage cans is a good case in point. And he says the weekend merely affirms his guarded view of this year's holiday shopping season.

"The consumer is extremely cautious these days and is far from being a free spender. The days of bargain hunting are right here at this moment. And it is easy to understand why. Consumers are cautious because of deep concern about job security," says Barnard, who adds that consumers may have something else to worry about. Retailers have anticipated a reluctant consumer, and inventories are lean. He says consumers who wait for a price to drop further may be disappointed when they return to make a purchase.

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