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New Yorkers Start Holiday Shopping Season - 2001-11-23

New Yorkers, like Americans across the nation, crowded into stores and shopping malls Friday, on what is traditionally one of the busiest holiday shopping days of the year.

Many shoppers from the New York area turned up at the malls before dawn Friday. Toy stores, in particular, opened earlier than usual, anticipating big demand.

Bill Lucas, who tracks retail trends, says people seem to be buying items for pure enjoyment in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. "I think there are really two components to what's happening," he said. "People are purchasing things that make them feel good and give a sense of security. We're seeing a lot of going back to basics, in terms of board games, in terms of Americana. But at the same time, there's a kind of vicarious escapism. People aren't traveling as much. But they're doing things like the new video games that are out there. Or women are purchasing higher-priced underwear just to make themselves feel good."

Retailers are somewhat nervous about the holiday shopping season, which begins officially right after Thanksgiving Day, which was celebrated on Thursday. The U.S. economy has been weak all year, and has looked even more precarious after September 11.

Experts say job insecurity and uncertainty about future terrorist actions are clouding the retail picture. Many stores are enticing customers with price markdowns.

However, Mark Friedman, a retail analyst for the Merrill Lynch investment firm, says too many markdowns cut into profit margins. "We're looking for earnings to be down at least 10 percent," he said. "The only saving grace, I think, is inventory. Many of the retailers have really tried to limit inventory. So, the unknown is if there's enough buying early there won't be a lot of inventory late and that will limit the amount of markdowns."

As analysts and news organizations track the shopping habits of Americans on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, some experts say it is too early to tell what the Christmas shopping season will look like. Retail consultant Peter Brown. "Oh, I think we'll have a much better sense by mid-December, " said Peter Brown. " It's very difficult to extrapolate off of today, which is always the desire to do. But this year, particularly, it's so early. It's such a long holiday shopping season."

This is the most important season for U.S. retailers, a time when they normally bring in a hefty share of their profits for the year. And this year, it is also a critical time for the U.S. economy, which experts hope will start showing signs of recovery by the first quarter of 2002. Consumer spending is normally responsible for about two-thirds of U.S. economic growth.