The nation's stores and malls are now focusing their efforts on the final two weeks before Christmas, after pulling in the serious holiday shoppers with expanded hours and discounts over the weekend.
According to early reports, the winners included toy stores and consumer electronics retailers like Toys "R" Us Inc. and Best Buy Co. (BBY) which attracted consumers looking for bargains on hot toys and flat-panel TVs. Still, analysts expect many shoppers to again wait until the end of the season, especially since Christmas falls on a Monday.
"It seemed moderately heavy," said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak RCT Corp., a research firm, who was surveying Chicago stores over the weekend. "That's probably right for this time. But we have two more big weekends ahead of us."
C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Retail Group, said that business was better than last weekend, though he described these past two days as "average at best", based on his survey of 600 shoppers over the past two-day period.
Clearly, shoppers were scouring for deals.
Alba Brooks of Miami, armed with an advertising flyer from Macy's, had a list of discounted items she wanted to buy, including a three-piece luggage set for about $45.
"It was less than half of the price, and I got it," said Brooks, who was at a mall in Aventura, Fla.
Debbie Kezelevich, of Naugatuck, Conn., said she "started out at the big stores like Kmart, Wal-Mart and the Christmas Tree Shop."
Toys "R" Us opened at 7 a.m on Saturday, offering 50 percent off selected toys. Federated Department Stores Inc.'s (FD) Macy's reduced prices on all fine jewelry by up to 50 percent. And Sears, Roebuck and Co. stores plied shoppers with discounts on flat-panel TVs and some clothing.
Most of the discounts were planned, a sign that retailers aren't panicking, analysts said. Nonetheless, many merchants are under more pressure to make their holiday sales goals after the industry reported mixed sales results for November.
Meanwhile, online retailers are getting ready for the busiest days ahead this week. ComScore Networks Inc., an Internet research company, expects the busiest day of the holiday shopping season will be Monday or Tuesday. Late Sunday, comScore reported that total online spending from Nov. 1 through Dec. 8 reached $15.58 billion, up 25 percent compared to the year-ago period. The results exclude travel, auctions and large corporate purchases.
One hopeful sign for the season was the positive jobs creation report released by the Labor Department Friday that showed the job market is holding up well despite a slowdown in the housing market and layoffs announced by a number of companies. Consumers are more likely to spend freely if they're feeling secure about their jobs.
Early reports about the third weekend of the season were encouraging, though a better picture won't be known until later this week when reports from ShopperTrak and International Council of Shopping Centers are released.
"We are pleased," said Jerry Storch, CEO and chairman of Toys "R" Us, noting that discounted and regular-price items are all doing well. He added, "This year, there are a lot of hot toys, and so there are many reasons to come to the store."
He noted that Toys "R" Us kept getting shipments of Fisher-Price's T.M.X. Elmo and Nintendo Co.'s Wii video game system, although they sell out immediately. Other hot toys include Fisher-Price's Kid Tough Digital Camera, and Lego Systems Inc.'s Mindstorms NXT robotics kit, he said.
According to two Best Buy Co. regional managers — one in West Paterson, N.J. and the other in Boston — the consumer electronics retailer had robust traffic, with shoppers focusing on buying flat-panel TVs and MP3 players.
"Shoppers are staying longer in the store," said Chuck O'Donnell, a district service manager for the West Paterson store, noting the overall weekend was good.
Karen MacDonald, spokeswoman for Taubman Centers Inc., which operates or owns 23 malls in 11 states, said a sampling of malls on Saturday averaged a low-single digit increase in sales compared to a year ago. Among the most popular items were cashmere, jewelry and consumer electronics like flat-panel TVs and digital cameras.
Billie Scott, spokeswoman at Simon Property Group, which owns or operates 175 malls in 38 states, said stores have been "pleased with traffic and sales" this weekend. She noted that people seem to be "shopping early in the day."
Gary Butcher, vice president of research at Santa Monica, Calif.-based Macerich Co., which operates 80 malls nationwide, said that traffic was up 18 percent for the week ended Saturday compared to the previous week.
At San Francisco's Union Square mall, several small business owners said they felt squeezed out by the lavish department store promotions and the lower prices offered online. Sabrina Cohen, the owner of Moti-Photo, a small electronics shop specializing in digital cameras and MP3 players, said the growing popularity of online shopping has helped make this holiday season the worst in the 15 years she'd been in business.
"It's been slow — amazingly slow the past two months," said Cohen.
What may help merchants this year is that Hanukkah is occurring earlier than last year, beginning Dec. 15, while last year, it started Dec. 25. Analysts expect the Saturday before Christmas to be the busiest shopping day.
It was clear this weekend that as many people were trying to get their shopping done, others felt little time pressure.
Chase Porterfield was at the Greenwood Park Mall in Indianapolis on Saturday just getting ideas for gifts for his parents and his teenage brother and sister.
"Just looking around," he said, noting he had no specific items in mind.
And Chris Deboer, of Miami, who was shopping for a car radio at a Circuit City (CC) store in Doral, Fla., said he had not started his holiday shopping yet.
"Next week, maybe," he said.