PORTLAND (AP) – Maine retailers are hopeful, but are keeping their optimism in check after the first big shopping weekend of the Christmas season.

Shoppers seem to agree with business observers as they try to gauge consumer enthusiasm in a Maine, where last December’s 7.3 percent sales growth eclipsed the national figure of 2.2 percent.

“The war in Iraq still has some people concerned, but stocks are bouncing back,” said David Singo of Long Island as he shopped at the Maine Mall in South Portland. “I think people are a little more secure.”

Jim McGregor, executive vice president of the Maine Merchants Association, said an informal polling of Maine businesses can be summed by the phrase “cautious optimism.”

“We’re looking to 2003 to kind of finally get us over that hurdle. There seems to be a feel that folks are going to go out and shop this year,” McGregor said.

There’s optimism on a national scale as well. The National Retail Federation predicts that holiday sales will increase 5.7 percent this year to $217 billion, the largest increase since 1999.

The world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, said its sales on the day after Thanksgiving set a single-day record at $1.52 billion, about $100 million more than it rang up on “Black Friday” last year.

The company said the top sellers this year were home electronics, small appliances and toys.

A surge in online sales could have an impact on holiday shopping this season.

“For the first time in online retail history, women now outnumber men in terms of people shopping online,” said Carrie Johnson, retail analyst with Forrester Research of Massachusetts.

With more women using the Internet, Johnson expects apparel, home goods and health and beauty products to sell better online this year. Standards such as low-priced electronics, music and books will also do well online, she predicted.

Johnson also predicted that online holiday sales will grow by 42 percent over last year’s figure, from $8.4 billion to $12.2 billion.

AP-ES-11-30-03 1231EST

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