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Bargain Hunters Rush to US Stores as Holiday Shopping Season Begins - 2003-11-28

The Friday after Thanksgiving in the United States traditionally marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season. People line up early at stores to take advantage of sales, making it one of the biggest shopping days of the year and a barometer of consumer confidence.

Chatting shoppers and beeping cash registers drown out the Christmas carols playing at this New York department store.

Now that the holiday season is underway, many Americans are looking for the perfect gifts for friends and loved-ones. Some shoppers arrived at stores before dawn.

Layla Phillips is visiting New York City from southern State of Arkansas. She says, even though she was far from home, she and her family decided to take advantage of the Friday sales.

"We got here maybe Wednesday for the holiday season, and we thought, well, you know, Friday is the biggest shopping day, and they all have sales, and we decided to come here because it is a really good shopping mall," she explained.

Ms. Phillips says she has compiled a long shopping list with everything from clothes to compact disks. She says she plans to spend about $500 dollars on gifts this year.

Shoppers Wanda and Dominick, who have just one day to shop together, have already chosen several gift items. "I am trying to limit my spending on buying gifts. I do not want to go over $500," said Wanda.

This holiday season, retailers are hoping an improving economy and rising consumer confidence will boost sales. Last year, the threat of war in Iraq and a string of corporate layoffs resulted in some of the worst holiday sales in years.

The National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales for 2003 will grow nearly six percent over the same period last year, generating more than $200 billion.

Lynn Franco, the director of the research center at the business analysis group, the Conference Board, says many Americans are bargain-hunting this year. But she notes shoppers often exceed their budgets.

"We have seen a shift over the last several years that consumers have become much more bargain-oriented, and we do not see that changing at all this year," she said. "And what we have seen also is, they seem to be a little bit more cautious going into this season, and then, once they begin spending, as we all know, we tend to exceed our budgets."

Holiday shopping is of enormous importance to retailers. Researchers say that, for some businesses, the holiday season accounts for close to a quarter of the year's sales.

One department store employee says he is ready for long hours and long lines in the weeks ahead. "We live all year long for these next 40 days," he said.

Holiday shopping continues through the month of January, when many consumers come out for after-Christmas sales.