Economy making season's shoppers shy

The Associated Press

The Christmas shopping season opened with the traditional crush, and though stores were packed, economic uncertainty had many shoppers looking, not buying.

''It's just tougher times,'' said shopper Sharon Sky in Denver. ''It seems as if my dollar doesn't go as far.''

Retailers are betting on the Christmas sales to help turn around what has been a dismal year. Yet some consumers are showing caution about spending, citing an uncertain economy and overextended personal budgets.

Many retailers, anxious about grim sales forecasts, opened their doors before dawn Friday, hoping to draw in day-after-Thanksgiving crowds with bargains and giveaways.

''We're all crazy,'' said shopper Millie Ruffino at the Wal-Mart store in South Philadelphia, where crowds began forming at 6 a.m. ''It's one time of year, but you have to do it.''

Crowds bolted into stores around the country as early as 5 a.m., with big discounts making early morning shopping the way to go.

In Columbus, Ohio, Christmas trees already had been sold at Michaels discount arts and crafts store by 5:30 a.m. Some shoppers were already loading their cars at the Toys R Us in Little Rock, Ark., by 8 a.m.

The nation's retailers launched major promotions this holiday season to spur interest in wary consumers after months of depressed sales. Prices were slashed as much as 50 percent on everything from clothes to computers to sporting goods.

''The retail banner years are long gone,'' said Dan Skoda, president of Marshall Field's department stores in Chicago. ''I don't think anybody's looking for a banner year. ... We look for market share. We just hope for a bigger piece of the pie.''

Some consumers are also thinking twice before saying ''charge it'' because they're already behind on credit-card repayments. The government reported last month that banks are seeing more consumer delinquencies in credit card and other installment loans.

''A couple years ago I charged all the Christmas presents thinking that would make it easier,'' said Felicia Bumgarner, who was shopping at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Mo. ''Man, you're paying Christmas off till June with the high interest rates.'' Anecdotal evidence gathered Friday also suggested not everyone was worried.

''I live for this day,'' said Tamara Raye of Southfield, Mich., as she juggled three shopping bags and studied a store map in search of more things to buy.

''If you're a shopper and you like bargains,'' she said, ''there is nothing like it.''

At a Raleigh, N.C., mall, 4-year-old Adam Raby stood in line with his mother to meet Santa and seemed to understand the need for an early start.

''I'm going to tell this Santa what I want for Christmas, and he's going to tell the real Santa what I want.''

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