NEW YORK – Retailers are pulling out all the stops — slashing prices and staying open very, very late — in hopes of attracting shoppers this weekend, the last before Christmas.
But analysts said that even if the markdowns and assorted stunts boost store traffic, the discounts are so deep that prospects of a recovery in profits are dim.
Most retailers are reeling this year as consumers, hit with a struggling economy and rising unemployment in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, continue to be choosy in their spending. Even those who do shop are concentrating mainly on retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which sells cut-price food, household detergents, medicine and clothing.
Some economists said this year's Christmas shopping season could be the worst since the recession of the early 1980s, with the government's broadest measure of retail sales in December and January unlikely to match its performance during the 1990-91 recession.
With holiday purchases accounting for as much as one-quarter of many retailers' annual sales, store managers are left biting their nails and pulling every stunt imaginable to get customers to make last-minute purchases during the final weekend before Christmas.
Department stores like Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor are offering additional percents off already marked down merchandise. In addition, the retailers are offering coupons that allow shoppers to take even more off.
High-end store Barneys New York is heading into its second markdown of designer apparel. Starting tomorrow, shoppers can save 50 to 60 percent on trendy designers like Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry and Paul Smith.
Most retailers are also extending business hours. Sears, Roebuck and Co. — the nation's fourth-largest retailer — and value-priced retailer Kohl's Corp. announced on Friday that they have scheduled longer store hours to capture any last-minute shopping rush.
Kohl's said it will open its stores on Saturday from 7 a.m. to midnight and carry 50 percent discounts on items like selected outerwear, footwear and up to 60 percent off fine jewelry.
Sears said its stores will open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday.
One-upping them all, Kmart has vowed to keep its stores open for 110 hours straight. The chain's stores, which opened at 6 a.m. on Thursday, will stay open 110 hours straight until Christmas Eve Monday at 8 p.m. Customers will find deals like 70 percent off all fine jewelry, 25 to 40 percent off holiday decorating items and tableware, and two-for-$1 Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars.
Retail analysts, however, doubt a single weekend can make up for months of sluggish sales.
"It's obviously been a difficult year. I don't think the pattern of this being a very difficult period will change on the strength of just one weekend,'' Robert Kerson, president of Korn/Ferry International's Global Retail/Fashion Group.
"The apparel business will continue to be under pressure,'' he said, adding that most retailers may already be focusing on plans for after Christmas and the spring.
All news is not grim. Sales of winter clothing improved as a wave of cold weather swept across parts of the country, according to Tuesday's Redbook Retail Sales report. Demand was also solid for consumer electronics, with DVD players, the Sony Playstation, the Microsoft Xbox and videos and toys also selling well.
"We are hopeful that this will be a very solid weekend,'' a Sears spokeswoman said, but added the company was still on track for a "decrease'' in December same-store sales from "low to mid-single digits."
Reuters and the New York Post contributed to this report.