Upside to sinking economy

HOUSTON More stores are starting their Christmas sales earlier, and those discounts are expected to be deep. According to one survey, Americans are going to spend less than they did a year ago, and that's making retailers nervous. Before the holidays are over, consumers could find more bargains and ultimately save some money in the process.

From flat screen TVs to toys, the sales have already started. The lower prices are designed to bring customers into stores early. Victoria Zarate is taking advantage of the discounts.

"I just started looking today," she said. "Maybe after today, if I see them progressively going down after today, that will be all right and better for a whole bunch of us."

In fact, retailers across the country are slashing prices even before the traditional black Friday bargains that appear the day after Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart, for instance, is planning to offer door-buster deals Saturday. One item on deep discount is a 46-inch flat screen TV for less than $800.

"We have definitely set it up earlier this year," said Laddie trainer with Wal-Mart. "It is probably going to take consumers a little while longer to buy that merchandise to build up for the holidays."

Wal-Mart is the only major retailer that saw an increase in sales in October. Nearly all the rest were down double digits. And the rest of the year may be bleak.

A Consumer Reports survey found Americans are planning to cut back on Christmas spending this year.

"Seventy-six percent of those surveyed told us that they are going to be cutting back this holiday season, 76 percent they are going to be buying fewer gifts," said Todd Marks with Consumer Reports. "They are going to be traveling, entertaining, and tipping less. They are going to be sending fewer holiday greeting cards."

So far, Houston has been spared from the deepest trouble of the economic slowdown that has hit the rest of the nation. Shoppers we spoke with say they will probably spend the same amount as last year, not less, but they still want to see discounts before opening their wallets.

"I think the prices are lower this year," said shopper Delbert Winfield.

Another piece of advice -- if you don't see it on sale, ask for a discount anyway.

"Most people who ask or sought a discount were successful in getting something back in return," said Marks.

In the past, retailers have tried to keep their black Friday sales a secret, but not this year. In fact, some stores are already posting the deals on their own web sites in an effort to grab attention and bring in shoppers.

There are a few sites that gather all the information for you and we have links to them on the consumer blog.

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