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Retailers welcome holiday shoppers
Sales already have begun at local shops
Alberto Vazquez shops for shirts Friday afternoon at J.C. Penney at Colonial Lakeshore Mall. The store already has their holiday displays up and is preparing for a big sale this weekend for customers looking to start their Christmas shopping early.

This year, holiday shoppers are starting early.

Local retailers said in the first week of November they have noticed more people than normal browsing the shelves for gifts.

"A lot of people are starting a little bit earlier in their Christmas buying; it’s that environment we’re in now," said Paul Shires, the store manager of J.C. Penney in Lakeshore Mall. "I think people are already pre-planning — they’re a little tight on money."

Shires, whose store put out holiday decorations about a week early this year, said people are also changing what they buy.

"They’re buying key items at key prices definitely earlier this year," Shires said. "Even though we’re in a tough economic time, people are still going to buy for Christmas. They may not buy as much, they may not buy as many high-ticket items."

Belk at Lakeshore Mall was trimmed with holly and ribbons by Nov. 1.

Lisa Lassiter, Belk’s regional vice president for north Atlanta, said she too has noticed more early shoppers at the Gainesville Belk.

"We have people already coming in making gift purchases and having them gift-wrapped for Christmas," Lassiter said.

People are also buying more functional basics, like sweaters, this year than in the past.

"They want more value for their dollar," Lassiter said.

Sales at stores open at least a year rose 2.1 percent in October, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs tally, compared with a 4.2 percent drop in October 2008. The October results beat estimates for a 1 percent gain and followed a surprising 0.6 percent increase in September.

Sales at stores open at least a year are considered a key indicator of a retailer’s health.

But retail sales figures are mainly starting to look better because they are being compared with the free fall in spending a year ago.

There’s still plenty of concern about the fragility of American consumers who continue to grapple with weak employment. More than 6 million additional people were jobless in September 2009 than in September 2008.

That’s why many stores, including Toys R Us and Sears, are aiming to get shoppers early by hawking deep sales and expanded hours usually reserved for the day after Thanksgiving. But shoppers shouldn’t expect "80 percent off" signs early in the season, as consumers found a year ago.

JC Penney and Belk are both holding sales Saturday as a kickoff to the holiday shopping season. Sales during November and December are crucial and make up a large percentage of retailers’ yearly earnings.

"It’s definitely those key days and key events that most retailers, including Penney’s, are trying to make sure we’re prepared and ready for our customers," Shires said. "We’re hoping that we have a great Christmas."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.