RETAILERS DECK HALLS, BUT TRAFFIC IS MIXED

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Retailers flooded consumers with stacks of shiny circulars in Thursday newspapers, but come Friday morning, traffic was light enough at one famous shopping mecca to raise eyebrows.

Chicago's Magnificent Mile, a barometer of Midwest consumer confidence, appeared lifeless Friday morning despite retailers' extended morning hours. Clerks and shoppers at Water Tower Place mall were surprised by the elbowroom.

"Usually you can't even walk around," said Becky Alberts, a 20-year-old from Streeter, Ill., who drives 21/2 hours each year to shop on Michigan Avenue the day after Thanksgiving.

Salespeople at Water Tower's Lord & Taylor store said traffic on the day after Thanksgiving has decreased in recent years, possibly due to the "hype and crowds." Dwayne Murray, a clerk at the retailer's jewelry counter, said the day before Thanksgiving was surprisingly busy this year; the store sold $18,000 in diamond bracelets, gold chains and other baubles, three times the intake on the same day last year.

Most analysts predict sales will increase 4% to 5% this year, but no one seems to agree when shoppers will come out in force.

Traffic the day after Thanksgivng was heavier at Chicago's suburban malls, where consumers said they were drawn by department stores' early hours. Nationwide, department stores opened earlier than most specialty stores, advertising special sales and incentives for early birds.

"We're going to the department stores for the sales," said 11-year-old Timmy Dury, shopping with her father at Old Orchard mall in Skokie, Ill.

Sears stores nationwide opened at 7:30 a.m., advertising a three-hour sale and $500 shopping spree to some lucky customers. J.C. Penney Co. one-upped the Big Store's hours, opening at 7 a.m. for a five-hour sale.

One department store in North Carolina managed to beat even Penney's hours.

"When Belk's found out that Penney's was opening at 7, we decided we'd open at 6," said Mary Matthews, a Belk's sales associate at the Eutaw Village mall in Fayetteville. "We're going to be serving coffee and juice to the customers .*.*. whichever retail store draws them in [early] is going to keep them."

Struggling Kmart Corp. was even open on Thanksgiving Day, offering a wide variety of deals.

In Manhattan, 125-year-old FAO Schwarz was crowded as usual, with especially heavy traffic in the expanded Barbie boutique. The store gets as many as 60,000 visitors on a weekend day during the month after Thanksgiving, said Brooke Adkins, VP-catalogs, marketing and public relations.

"It's been a tough year, but....we've seen increases across the board," Ms. Adkins said.

Bloomingdale's said it's "cautiously optimistic this year," expecting strong single-digit sales gains, according to a spokeswoman.

Adam Yahn contributed to this story.

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