As the nation's retail executives began poring over, and in some cases despairing over, sales receipts from the holiday weekend, one pattern became clearer: Consumers mobbed discount chains, with their $398 laptops and 5 a.m. openings, but largely shopped right past other specialty retailers at the mall.
The disparity, analysts said, could indicate a tough season ahead for clothing retailers like Gap and Aeropostale and even deeper discounts for shoppers as the chains scramble to build momentum in the crucial approach to Christmas.
ShopperTrak, which measures purchases at 45,000 mall-based merchants, found that sales for the day after Thanksgiving fell 0.9 percent from last year, to $8.01 billion, a figure not adjusted for inflation.
"The specialty guys just got outgunned this time around," said John D. Morris, a retail analyst at Harris Nesbitt.
The winners, he said, were the discount chains with locations outside the malls, apparently the beneficiaries of an 11.4 percent increase in weekend spending among Visa USA cardholders. Wal-Mart reported that a record 10 million shoppers walked through its doors before noon Friday. In a recorded phone call over the weekend, the company said Friday sales "exceeded plans" and that consumers continued to shop after the early-morning discounts expired.
One possible explanation for the in-the-mall, outside-the-mall discrepancy: Discount chains, led by Wal-Mart, blitzed consumers with advertising well before Thanksgiving, opened their stores even earlier than last year and offered the most talked-about discounts, like a $188 15-inch flat-panel television at Circuit City and a $77 HP four-megapixel digital camera at Staples.
The mall-based merchants, on the other hand, largely avoided circulars or television advertising. Gap, in a surprising break with tradition, stopped marketing its marquee brand on TV after years of aggressive campaigns with stars like Sarah Jessica Parker, Missy Elliott and Joss Stone. (Gap, saying store traffic "deteriorated beyond anticipated levels," is predicting a relatively weak holiday.)
It appeared that the Web snatched at least some of the traditional mall business. ComScore Networks, a market research firm, said online purchases rose 22 percent for the day after Thanksgiving, to $305 million.
Later mall openings may have also hampered specialty retailers. "If you look at the retailers that went all out on Friday, many of them opened at 5 a.m. You did not see a lot of malls doing that," said Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group in Washington.
Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman for Taubman Centers, said most of the company's 23 shopping centers did not open until 8 a.m., three hours after early morning bargain hunters sprinted into Best Buy, Circuit City and Wal-Mart.
Discounting at mall-based stores, while apparently not deep enough to lure more customers than last year, nevertheless may have lowered their overall sales for Friday, said Bill Martin, one of ShopperTrak's founders.
For the day after Thanksgiving, the Gap ran a "buy one, get the second half off" promotion; American Eagle Outfitters offered 15 percent off before noon; and by Saturday, Aeropostale marked down much of its inventory 50 percent.
At the Aeropostale in Manhattan Mall on Saturday, where striped hooded sweaters and distressed denim appeared thoroughly picked over, Damaris Torres, 23, bought a pair of deeply discounted jeans, regularly $50, for $10. "It's like basically free," she said.
The 50 percent off sale "is really, really good" agreed Yomhyra Martinez, a 15-year-old from Boston, who stood in line at Aeropostale to buy two hooded sweaters because "most of my friends own hoodies."
Despite a slower-than-expected start at the mall, the National Retail Federation stood by its forecast for the holiday season. It expects sales to rise 6 percent over 2004, which would make this year's performance good, but by no means great. Since 1999, when sales grew more than 8 percent, merchants have learned to live with more modest gains.
In a survey of more than 4,000 consumers over the weekend, the federation found that 61 percent made purchases at discount retailers, 47 percent at department stores and 41 percent at specialty stores. Overall, it estimated that the weekend's spending would rise 22 percent, to $27.8 billion.