It's that time for caroling, eggnog, holiday cheer — and for some, a frantic dash to the mall.
Last-minute shoppers hit stores on Christmas Eve in a surge that is expected to top off an unexpectedly strong holiday shopping season.
Among them was Len Boswell. He started his shopping at 6 a.m. at Starbucks and by later morning was at a CVS drugstore in Decatur, Ga., picking up candy and a neck pillow for his wife.
"I should have done this a couple of weeks ago," acknowledges Boswell, 68, a director of book publishing at a nonprofit.
Stores are expected to ring up $469.1 billion during the holiday season, and the final week before Christmas can account for up to 20 percent of those sales. Retailers tempered their expectations heading into the season because they worried that Americans weren't ready to spend in the weak economy. But sales have been so brisk during the two-month period that the National Retail Federation, the industry's big trade group, upgraded its sales forecast a full percentage point to 3.8 percent.
Sales from the start of the season in November through last Saturday rose 2.5 percent, according to research firm ShopperTrak. Online, shoppers had spent almost $32 billion online for the holiday season, a 15 percent increase from a year ago, according to the comScore, which tracks Web use.
"We're seeing good traffic, good sales," said Sherif Mityas, a partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm. "Even with all the bad news and hesitancy in terms of the economy, consumers are still opening up their wallets more than last year, which is good news."
But at a time when Americans are still concerned about high unemployment, lower wages and market uncertainty, retailers aren't willing to leave anything to chance on the final shopping days before Christmas.
Macy's and Toys R Us have been open for 24 hours in the days leading up to Christmas. At malls, Abercrombie & Fitch has been offering a blanket 50 percent off on all items while J. Crew and Madewell offered 30 percent off. And retailers' promotional e-mails from has been up 34 percent from a year ago, according to Responsys, which tracks e-mail activity from more than 100 merchants. has
"They're clearly putting best foot forward on promotions right now," said John Morris, analyst at BMO Capital Markets, who estimates promotional sale activity is up about 7 percent compared with last year, taking into account the level of mark downs and the amount of goods marked down."
Whether it's the sales or just plain, old procrastination, last-minutes shoppers were drawn to stores across the country on Christmas Eve.
On Saturday morning, at Manhattan Mall in New York, a steady stream of shoppers.
Shamek Shider, 22, was among the shoppers on Christmas Eve morning. He had spent $100 at Macy's on snow suits for his god daughter on Friday, his first time out holiday shopping. He came back on Christmas Eve he was back out again and spent $250 on jewelry and clothing at Macy's and J. C. Penney for his mother, sister and other relatives.
"This is when I see the best deals," said Shider, who lives in Newark, N.J.
Ryan Eagle, 25, planned to hit South Park Mall in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday morning to shop for presents for his wife. He always shops on Christmas Eve, he said, to get good deals and to people watch. Last year, he found $200 boots on sale for $50 at Macy's.
"I'm a last minute person," he said. "I enjoy going out and watching everyone run around."
Mae Anderson reported from Atlanta, Ga.
Retailer Writer Anne D'Innocenzio in New York contributed to this report.
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