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After-holiday shoppers hit up the malls

Foot traffic at Fargo's West Acres mall Friday was up at least 16 percent over last year's Dec. 26 shopper turnout, its general manager said. By 3 p.m., Rusty Papachek said about 28,000 people visited the mall - North Dakota's largest - which is ...

Busy day

Foot traffic at Fargo's West Acres mall Friday was up at least 16 percent over last year's Dec. 26 shopper turnout, its general manager said.

By 3 p.m., Rusty Papachek said about 28,000 people visited the mall - North Dakota's largest - which is an increase from the 24,000 people who visited the mall the day after Christmas in 2007.

Papachek attributed the increase in shoppers to fairly pleasant daytime weather and the convenience of Dec. 26 falling on a Friday this year. Dec. 26 fell on a Wednesday last year, Papachek said, adding that Fridays tend to be easier for people to take time off from work.

West Acres prepared for the shopping event by opening at 8 a.m., while J.C. Penney opened its doors at 5:30 a.m. Shopping centers around the country also braced themselves for post-Christmas bargain hunters.

Two hours before the doors were set to open Friday morning, a Miami-area Wal-Mart parking lot was full of cars - and possibility.

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But in a Christmas shopping season in which many Americans were unwilling to spend, even a packed lot doesn't always translate into holiday cheer for stores.

As stores offered rock-bottom prices and extended return policies, shoppers returned to the malls the day after Christmas. But many were on the hunt for big bargains on specific items or hoping to return unwanted gifts - not looking to splurge.

That kind of focus by shoppers could spell deep trouble for the nation's stores, which are facing the worst holiday shopping season in decades.

Holiday sales - which typically account for 30 to 50 percent of a retailer's annual total - have been less than jolly. Job cuts, portfolio losses and other economic woes have led many Americans to cut back on their spending. Meanwhile, strong winter storms kept some would-be shoppers at home.

According to preliminary data from SpendingPulse, which tracks purchases paid for by credit card, checks and cash, retail sales fell between 5.5 and 8 percent during the holiday season compared with last year. Excluding auto and gas sales, they fell 2 to 4 percent, according to SpendingPulse.

Although West Acres in Fargo saw an increase in Dec. 26 shoppers Friday, Papachek said he won't know how much in sales was made until at least mid-January.

Many stores are likely to report a loss for the fourth quarter, said NPD senior retail analyst Marshal Cohen.

Stores were hoping that big discounts the day after Christmas could lure people out and help stem those losses. And although some malls appeared to be busy with bargain-hunters and gift-returners, analysts said traffic appeared to be lighter than in years past.

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The parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Milwaukee was less than one-third full Friday morning, with many shoppers appearing to stock up on groceries and small household items.

Gigi Johnson, a special needs teacher, bought laundry detergent and some clothes for her twin 14-year-old daughters. But she said she was not planning any large purchases for the next few months and would put the money she received from Christmas in the bank.

"Maybe I'll wait until tax time and get a computer or TV," Johnson said. "But until then, I'm resisting the temptation to buy anything else."

Newlywed Anthony Guites, 32, planned to stop at three Miami-area stores to return gifts from his wife. He had three things to exchange at Wal-Mart for a fishing rod he wanted.

"She got me a fishing rod that I don't like. She got me this tool set that I already have. And she got me workout clothes that, let's just say, are way too colorful for me," he said.

Copyright © 2008 The Forum. All rights reserved. AP contributed to this report.

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