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LOS ANGELES-Many retailers and mall owners here and in other parts of the nation are reporting strong sales volume for the Thanksgiving weekend, raising hopes that the holiday sales season will be stronger than some experts have been expecting.

In the LA suburb of Glendale, shoppers who didn’t make it to the 1.5-million-sf Glendale Galleria early on Friday or Saturday had to wait several minutes just to get into the parking structure and begin their hunt for a parking space. Once inside the mall, they had to snake their way through thousands of fellow shoppers—many of them already loaded down with big shopping bags and boxes of presents.

Foot traffic at the mall was up 8% on Friday compared to a year earlier, Glendale Galleria marketing exec Annette Bethers says. It was up an even stronger 10% on Saturday, she adds.

Many Kmart stores opened early on Thanksgiving Day, and stayed open around-the-clock until late Sunday evening. Dozens and sometimes even hundreds of people lined up outside several big-box retailers—including Target, Circuit City and Best Buy—well before the stores opened on Friday morning, and again on Saturday.

Retail giant Wal-Mart says its domestic sales on Friday set a single-day record of nearly $1.3 billion, up from $1.1 billion a year ago. Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which owns and operates 140 malls across the US, says a survey of 40 of its properties indicates that sales were between 2% and 5% higher than last year.

But while shoppers swamped big-box stores and other discount retailers, the lines weren’t nearly as long at many traditional department stores—especially those that aren’t taking part in massive promotional campaigns that offer huge discounts. “Consumers are hunting for bargains and finding them,” says Kurt Barnard, president of the national Barnard’s Retail Trend Report newsletter. Stores that didn’t offer deep discounts over the weekend found that buyers “passed right by,” he adds.

Still, the overall sales activity was better than many analysts had expected. Some have forecast that holiday sales will be 5% or even more than 10% lower than a year ago because many consumers are skittish about the economy or don’t feel like spending lavishly at a time when the nation is still grieving from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast.

The weekend sales figures might have been even better, had the weather cooperated: An unusually heavy rain storm drenched most of Southern California on Saturday, keeping many would-be shoppers at home. Rain also fell in several cities on the East Coast, while snow covered some parts of the Midwest.

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