Last-minute shoppers — snowed in by last weekend's East Cost storm or just waiting for the best deals — are coming out in force the day before Christmas.
Stores are counting on these procrastinators in a season that so far appears to be turning out slightly better than last year's disaster.
The final word on the holiday season is still uncertain, because the week after Christmas accounts for about 15 percent of sales as gift card-toting shoppers return to the malls.
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After-Christmas sales could get a boost because shoppers may be postponing some of their buying until after Christmas because they were dissatisfied with the 50 to 60 percent discounts instead of the 80 to 90 percent off they saw a year ago, according to David Bassuk, managing director in the retail practice of AlixPartners, a global business advisory firm.
A Christmas Eve snowstorm in the nation's heartland were slowing some shoppers after snarling roads in the mountain states a day earlier. But based on early readings, stores nationally have been packed all week.
Shoppers delayed their buying even more this year than last year. A storm that slammed the Northeast on the critical weekend before Christmas also put more pressure on merchants. Stores are counting they'll make up for lost sales in the final days before and after Christmas.
The Kohl's department store in Aurora, Ohio, gradually filled with customers as the sun rose Thursday. Employees stocking shelves and straightening sale signs outnumbered customers sifting through rows of clothes and displays of jewelry.
Carol Ratcliff shook her head as she ran down her list of gifts — sweaters, coats, scarves — in the checkout line. She finally set aside time the night before to figure out her remaining gifts for six people.
"I'm disgusted. I normally am out on Christmas Eve, but every year I say to myself I'll be all done with my gifts before then," said the 55-year-old nurse from Auburn, Ohio. "You have to have a plan, and I didn't come up with my plan until last night."
Joe Roberts, 59, left a RadioShack at a mall in Madison, Wis., with a huge smile and the PlayStation3 his teenage son insisted on for Christmas.
He said he delayed making the $300 purchase because of economic concerns. A self-employed designer of manufacturing equipment, Roberts is getting less business every year and his wife might soon lose her job as an office manager.
"I don't feel good about our outlook," he said.
Roberts said they nonetheless decided Wednesday to grant their son's wish, but then learned the video-game system was sold out at Best Buy, Walmart and other stores. Roberts finally connected with RadioShack early Thursday, and braved icy roads to buy the store's last one.
Research firm ShopperTrak reported sales nationally dropped 12.6 percent compared with a year ago. But some stores were confident that they could make it up because of a big surge of shopping that occurred this past week as shoppers played catch-up.
To accommodate shoppers snowed in on the East Coast by a storm last weekend, many stores and malls, including Toys R Us, Target Corp. and mall operator General Growth Properties extended their hours.
"It's finally feeling a lot like Christmas," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group, who was surveying crowds at malls in Long Island on Thursday. "There was a good buzz today."
Wally Brewster, spokesman at General Growth Properties, which operates 225 malls in 45 states, said merchants in his centers said they had made up for lost sales because of the last-minute buying surge. He reported that business was brisk Thursday.
Shoppers are coming back in a modest way this holiday season, handing stores what's expected to be sales that are a little better than a year ago.
The big bright spot is that merchants' fourth-quarter profits should be intact because they didn't have to cut prices more than they'd planned as they were cushioned by lean inventories. The full picture won't be known until major merchants report their monthly sales Jan. 7.
ShopperTrak, which tracks total sales and traffic at more than 50,000 outlets, is sticking to its prediction for a 1.6 percent gain, compared with a 5.9 percent drop a year ago.
The National Retail Federation expects that total retail sales will slip 1 percent, though some experts say that might be a a bit too cautious. A year ago, they fell 3.4 percent by the trade group's calculations.
The International Council of Shopping Centers forecasts that sales at stores open at least a year will be up 1 percent, compared with a 5.8 percent drop a year ago.
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