Shoppers appear to have given the nation's stores a needed last-minute sales surge. Early readings from Toys R Us Inc., Sears Holdings Corp. and several mall operators show packed stores on Christmas Eve following a busy week fueled by shoppers who delayed buying, waiting for bigger discounts that never came or slowed by last weekend's big East Coast snowstorm.
Stores were counting on these stragglers in a season that so far appears only slightly better than last year's disaster. The jury is still out, because the week after Christmas accounts for about 15 percent of sales as gift-card-toting shoppers return to malls.
"The procrastinators were really out in force," says David Bassuk, managing director in the retail practice of AlixPartners, a global business advisory firm. "But I think retailers needed to be more aggressive to fight for those sales. A lot of people are still willing to hold out until after Christmas because the deals weren't as good."
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A Christmas Eve snowstorm in the nation's heartland was slowing some shoppers after snarling roads in the mountain states a day earlier.
At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., shoppers were scarce and those who showed up had entire stores to themselves.
Some shoppers had challenges finding what they wanted as stores had slashed their inventories heading into the season. An Ann Taylor store at Westside Pavilion Mall in West Los Angeles pulled in 33 cartons of January merchandise earlier than planned, according to Rebecca Stenholm, a spokeswoman for the mall's operator, Macerich Co.
Joe Roberts, 59, left a RadioShack at a mall in Madison, Wis., with a huge smile and the PlayStation 3 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, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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, Wal-Mart and other stores. Mr. Roberts finally connected with RadioShack early Thursday and braved icy roads to buy the store's last PlayStation 3.
Snowy weather can take a toll on sales. Research firm ShopperTrak reported Saturday's snow helped fuel a 12.6 percent drop in sales Saturday compared with a year earlier.
Wally Brewster, spokesman for General Growth Properties, said merchants in his centers said they had made up for lost sales. Still, he expects overall holiday sales will be only about even with a year ago.
Karen MacDonald, spokesman for mall operator Taubman Centers Inc., noted that stores said many shoppers, remembering the 80 percent to 90 percent clearance sales they found last year, were asking whether the discounts were going to get any deeper.
And Macerich's Ms. Stenholm reported that more people were using cash to pay for gift cards than a year ago, reflecting tight credit and a desire to pay down debt.
The full picture won't be known until retailers report December sales on Jan. 7.
ShopperTrak 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 bit too cautious. A year ago, they fell 3.4 percent by the trade group's calculations.
Those concerns were far from most shoppers' minds, though.
Otis Tyler got up early Thursday to take a 12-mile boat ride from his home on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay to buy his Christmas gifts. From there, he drove 40 minutes to Salisbury, Md., hoping to pick up gift cards for his wife and daughter-in-law.
"I always like to do it on Christmas Eve," said Mr. Tyler, 60. "It's something I've been doing a long time. It's the hustle and bustle that I like."
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