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November 27, 2009

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US retailers hope for holiday spree

SHOPPERS in the United States may stretch tight budgets this year to reward loved ones after months of thrift, a softening of heart that store chains hope will erase the holiday season sales debacle of 2008.

Retailers from Wal-Mart Stores to Gap, RadioShack and Walgreens were opening their doors yesterday as US families celebrate Thanksgiving, aiming to capture early bird shoppers a day before the official start of holiday shopping on Black Friday.

The unsettled state of the US economy, with a 26-year high in unemployment and tighter access to credit, has industry holiday sales forecasts varying from a decline of 3 percent to an increase of 2 percent.

"The consumer is confused. They don't know whether to spend or not," said Marshal Cohen, senior analyst at retail consultancy NPD Group.

As the holidays draw closer and deeper discounts beckon, consumers may splurge a bit more. Industry experts expect a strong turnout on the Black Friday weekend, but caution it will not mean a bumper holiday season as shopping trails off in the weeks before Christmas. The psyche of American shoppers is being closely watched, as a return to spending would drive overall US economic growth. Early hopes for a consumer-led recovery have pushed retail shares up 47 percent this year, compared with a 23 percent rise for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.

Cohen, a 30-year industry veteran, travels to malls all along the US East Coast over the holiday weekend. He now sets out on Thanksgiving Day as so many more stores open on the holiday itself. While traffic to stores yesterday is relatively light, people who do make it out are mostly hard-core shoppers and highly likely to buy.

Up to 134 million US consumers say they may shop for holiday gifts this weekend from Black Friday through Sunday, according to the National Retail Federation. That is up from last year's survey, taken weeks after a global financial crisis erupted, but still below consumer Black Friday plans reported ahead of the shopping season in 2007.


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