Mixed signs for shopping season

BUFORD - Two days from Black Friday, the kickoff to holiday shopping, and the experts can't agree on what kind of season to expect.

"Better than we originally anticipated," says the National Retail Federation, which upgraded its holiday sales forecast Tuesday to $439 billion - a 6 percent improvement.

"A cautious attitude," says The Conference Board, an independent economic research organization, which predicted Tuesday that U.S. households will spend less on gifts this year.

The sales predictions are flying in anticipation of the traditional after-Thanksgiving rush, known historically as Black Friday. It's one of the busiest shopping days of the year, when retailers have a chance to turn a profit, or get back "in the black."

John Heavener, president of the Georgia Retail Association, said the state's consumers are ready to spend.

Gasoline prices have dropped below $2. October was warmer than normal, holding off those record high heating bills for at least another month.

"I think confidence is high and the overall mood is good," said Heavener, who expects shoppers will see plenty of sales when they hit the malls.

The best deals might be found in consumer electronics. Flat-model televisions could drop to about $1,000, especially online, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Consumers plan to spend about 21 percent of their holiday spending budgets on electronics, according to the Association. The No. 1 gift is expected to be the MP3 player, which includes Apple's iPod. Last year, the top gift item was the digital camera.

Best Buy's Michael Washington said MP3 players have evolved over the past year, and many models have added the ability to show movies and pictures.

Also, Microsoft's Xbox 360 is creating a stir. Lines were forming at Circuit City, Best Buy and toy stores across the United States as Microsoft has plenty of demand for the 360, yet relatively few in production.

"That's actually great to continue the buzz," said Consumer Electronics Association spokeswoman Jenny Pareti, whose husband was still trying to find an Xbox 360 in stock.