Bargain hunters and latecomers flocked to stores on Sunday as the retail industry made its last big push for pre-Christmas sales with increased discounts and other come-ons.
After a disappointing start to December, many stores are again counting on procrastinators in the final days before Dec. 25 — and post-Christmas business — to make their holiday sales goals.
Mild temperatures throughout most of the country did not inspire shoppers to buy winter items, like snow boots and gloves. And with Christmas falling on a Monday, the season became another nail biter as shoppers knew they had a full weekend to shop before the holiday.
Consumers shopped early for flat-panel TVs, hot toys like T.M.X. Elmo and new consoles such as Sony's Playstation3, but held off on apparel, creating a mixed holiday picture.
Bright spots have been the online business and luxury stores. But many mall-based apparel chains were challenged by increased competition from department stores such as Federated Department Stores Inc.'s Macy's and J.C. Penney Co., which are benefiting from industry consolidation and fresh fashions.
Still, many mall-based stores kept to their promotional calendar throughout the season, refusing to buckle down to shoppers' pressure for the best deal. Stores are counting on the post-Christmas sales surge when shoppers, armed with gift cards, return to stores and hopefully spend their new-found money freely on new merchandise along with the discounted items.
This past weekend, stores decreased prices even more to tempt shoppers to buy. Sears Holdings Corp.'s Sears, Roebuck and Co. was giving out $10 coupons for the first 50 shoppers at their 5 a.m. opening on Saturday. Meanwhile, Gap Inc., which has been languishing, took additional markdowns on everything from T-shirts to hooded sweatshirts and jean jackets at its namesake stores. Long-sleeve T-shirts were slashed to $9.99,from $24.50 at a Gap store in Manhattan.
Christmas Eve shopping is not one of the busiest shopping days as shoppers want to spend time with family and has been traditionally at the bottom of the season's top 10 shopping days.
Taubman Centers Inc., which operates or owns 23 malls in 11 states, reported that business, based on a sampling of malls, was tracking up mid-single digit percentage increases for the week ended Saturday compared with a year ago. On Saturday, sales were up anywhere from mid-single to low-double digit increases from a year ago.
Billie Scott, spokeswoman at Simon Property Group, which owns or operates 175 malls in 38 states, said that half of the malls that were sampled reported traffic and business on Saturday was about the same as the previous Saturday; the other half said traffic was lighter, though spending was up.
Kathleen Waugh, spokeswoman at Toys "R" Us said this past week was "exceptionally strong, " particularly on Saturday.
The International Council of Shopping Centers expects same-store sales growth for December to be up 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent and for the combined November-December period to be up 2.5 percent to 3.0 percent. Same-store sales are sales at stores opened at least a year and are the industry's standard for measuring a retailer's health.
Meanwhile, a late buying binge online helped online retailers surpass holiday sales forecasts, according to comScore Networks. Online spending from Nov. 1 through Wednesday reached $21.68 billion, marking a 26 percent increase compared to the corresponding year-ago period. The results exclude travel, auctions and corporate purchases. ComScore expected holiday sales to rise 24 percent.
The final days before Christmas and post-holiday business, boosted in part by gift card sales, have become increasingly critical for retailers. Gift card sales are not recorded on a retailers' balance sheet until the cards are redeemed.
According to BigResearch, which conducted a poll for the National Retail Federation, consumers are expected to spend a total of $24.81 billion on gift cards this holiday season, up about $6 billion from $18.48 billion in the year-ago period.