NEW YORK – Holiday procrastinators packed stores Friday morning, grabbing those last few presents, gift cards and the finishing touches for Christmas dinner.
For stores, this 11th-hour dash caps the best holiday season since 2007, and possibly the best ever. With Christmas falling on a Saturday this year, Friday is a holiday for most workers. That allowed shoppers to hit the stores first thing in the morning.
"I'm calling it Fantastic Friday, because I really do think it's going to be one of the busiest days of the year," said Marshal Cohen, chief fashion industry analyst with researcher NPD Group.
A strong Christmas Eve would round out a surprisingly successful holiday season for retailers. The National Retail Federation predicts that holiday sales will reach $451.5 billion this year, up 3.3 percent over last year. That would be the biggest year-over-year increase since 2006, and the largest total since sales hit a record $452.8 billion in 2007. A strong finish could even give 2010 the crown.
At the CVS drugstore in Decatur, Ga., Lisa Belcher, 42, was picking up a heating pad and gift cards for "a dinner and a movie."
"I usually end up having to get something on Christmas Eve," she said.
Many still didn't know what they wanted.
"When I walk past it, I'll know," said Jewelyn Sanders, 57, of Washington, D.C., who was looking for gifts for her three sisters in the linen section of Macy's in downtown Washington. She had already bought them Wal-Mart gift cards but wanted something more for each of them.
Plenty of others were desperate.
"I don't have time to look for deals," said Rob Tibbo, of Hooksett, N.H., who was finishing up his buying at the Steeplegate Mall in Concord. Tibbo started shopping Thursday was buying his wife a Coach bag.
While both are heavy shopping days, Christmas Eve draws a different breed of buyer than Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season.
"Those who get up and brave the cold on Black Friday are usually looking for hot items, not only to buy gifts but to score something for themselves," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. "They're planners, and they map out what they want to buy."
Shoppers who come out on Christmas Eve, on the other hand, were either waiting for the biggest discounts or they didn't have the money to spend earlier, she said. Or they just tend to dilly-dally.
While many Black Friday shoppers relish the hunt, last-minute buyers are harried and focused on getting things done. At toy stores, shopping is particularly intense as parents scramble to find the perfect toy.
"Stores are packed," said Jerry Storch, CEO of Toys R Us, which for the first time has all stores open for 88 hours straight, until 10 p.m. Friday.
"This is a big day in terms of the intensity of shopping," he said. Storch noted that shoppers are out looking for all kinds of toys, but he can't guarantee parents will find some of the season's hottest. Mattel Inc.'s Monster High line is scarce, while shoppers will probably be out of luck getting a Dance Star Mickey.
And true to stereotype, procrasinators are mostly men, said Dan Jasper, spokesman for Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Accordingly, stores push men's and women's sweaters in their circulars, while shoes and children's apparel take a back seat. Jewelry also tends to be a top last-minute gift item, though that category has been strong throughout the season.
E-commerce has driven much of the holiday's spending growth, as more Americans responded to online sales and free shipping offers. For the season to-date, $36.4 billion has been spent online, a 15.4 increase over last year, according to MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse.
Many people who postponed their shopping this year blame busy schedules. The number of hours U.S. workers are putting in at the office each week has been on the upswing since the official end of the recession in June 2009, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That leaves less time for shopping during the week.
Procrastinators shouldn't hit too many snags, if they're open-minded. Macy's and others had plenty of sweaters and other fashions, for example. Store inventories are not as depleted as last year, when merchants scared about having too many leftovers saw some empty shelves near the end of the season.
Sanders of Washington said she hadn't been able to get everything on her list. A sporting goods store she went to was sold out of New York Giants slippers and jerseys she wanted for her brother-in-law.
Shoppers are not seeing the 75-percent-off-everything fire sales that characterized the 2008 holiday. Still, many stores deepened discounts this week. Express's store at the Manhattan Mall in midtown had a huge yellow sign in its storefront window promoting an "end of the season 50 percent sale" on selected items.
At CVS, there are buy-two-get-one free deals on bath-and-body gift sets and discounts on a 7-inch LCD TV and DVD player combo.
If all else fails, shoppers will fall back on gift cards. Spending on the plastic vouchers is expected to reach nearly $25 billion this holiday season, 5 percent more than last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
Retailers say shoppers have mostly stuck to a big lesson taught by the recession: using cash, not credit. Toward the end of the season, they pulled out the plastic a little more often, but that's normal. Overall, analysts consider the increased spending a sign more consumers have paid down debt and have cash to spend.
Besides sales, retailers are finding other ways to accommodate procrastinators.
Many stores, including Best Buy Co., let shoppers order online and then pick up the merchandise at the store. Best Buy's deadline to order on its website is 3 p.m. Christmas Eve, and most stores close at 6 p.m.
Best Buy's store in Union Square in Manhattan had about 300 people in the store Friday morning, said store manager Amy Adoniz. And she said more than 100 online orders are coming in every hour for store pickup. Among the top sellers are e-readers, cameras and video-game systems.
"People are in the holiday spirit. They're feeling more at ease," she said.
AP Retail Writer Mae Anderson in Atlanta; AP Business Writer Tom Murphy in Indianapolis; and AP Writers Jessica Gresko in Washington, D.C.; and Holly Ramer, in Concord, N.H., contributed to this story.