Shoppers found a mixed bag of bargains and so-so deals on Monday, as a day off for many Americans and warm, dry weather lured some out for what was likely to be the third busiest shopping day of the holiday season.
Chains were also hoping that shoppers coming in to redeem the millions of gift cards given as presents might be willing to spend a bit more cash of their own.
Many chains were still relying on the lure of bargains to bring in shoppers on the day after Christmas. Office Depot Inc advertised its "Ultimate After Christmas Sale," with stores opening at 8 a.m., while Carter's Inc, the children's apparel retailer, promoted discounts of up to 70 percent.
The potential shopping boom comes as a weak labor market that has dragged on the economy shows signs of a turn. The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits hit a 3-1/2-year low in the week shortly before Christmas. And consumer sentiment scaled a six-month high in December with more Americans optimistic about the economic outlook.
Still, U.S. consumer spending, which accounts for about two-third of U.S. economic activity, rose less than expected in November.
This year marked the first time in six years that the day after Christmas fell on a Monday. Some dubbed it "Mega Monday" as the day takes on more prominence for shoppers, especially those who have the day off.
Shoppers who made their way to Saks Fifth Avenue in Boston's Prudential Center mall said the 60 percent and 70 percent discounts were well worth fighting the crowds. " It was a stampede at 8 a.m.," said Sarah Klein, 46, a teacher from Cambridge, who said people were grabbing fistfuls of discount handbags when the doors opened.
This year, Dec. 26 is expected to be the third busiest sales day, trailing Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and Friday, Dec. 23, according to ShopperTrak, which measures retail and mall foot traffic.
As procrastinators finished up shopping in the days just before Christmas, Dec. 23 overtook Dec. 17 as the second busiest day so far, said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak.
ShopperTrak predicted that up to 60 percent more shoppers will visit stores on Dec. 26 than on the same day last year.
Still, some shoppers were not impressed with the deals.
Catherine Arora, 33, who was visiting Boston from Australia, said sales back home are much bigger on the Dec. 26 Boxing Day holiday.
"So far, the sales are a bit underwhelming," she said while out hunting for clothes and shoes.
Retailers may have a glut of winter clothing due to warmer-than-usual weather, but they made smart bets on other items, meaning they should not have to resort to lots of steep discounts to clean out inventory, experts said.
Steven DiLibero Jr, a 33-year-old attorney from Barrington, Rhode Island, said he was disappointed with some of the sales.
"I was hoping for a little bit more on the sales," he said. "I'm getting like 25 percent to 30 percent on things -- a shirt and tie. I've probably saved about $100," he said.
In Chicago, major shopping areas were not too crowded early in the day. Ken Ucho, a retired principal who now lives in La Porte, Indiana, came back to Chicago to shop early on Monday and had spent about $300 by 11 a.m.
After visiting a number of stores, including Macy's and Bloomingdale's, Ucho, 69, said he only saw crowds at the upscale Neiman Marcus.
Retailers could sell as much as $29 billion worth of merchandise on Monday, according to Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, who had predicted strong holiday sales before the season began.
Sales at the $29 billion level would even outpace the $27 billion in sales Johnson saw on Black Friday.
Chains had also used their Web sites to entice shoppers on Christmas Day. Target Corp, for example, offered $10 off online orders of $50 or more on Christmas .
Four in 10 Americans plan on hitting stores over the next few days, while 46 percent have no plans to shop, according to a poll from Consumer Reports. Of those who said they planned to shop, 82 percent said the biggest draw was post-holiday sales, 47 percent wanted to redeem gift cards, and 31 expected to return gifts.
Retailers hope that people coming in to redeem gift cards will buy merchandise at full price and spend more than the value of the cards they are using.
Another Consumer Reports poll found that 113 million Americans received gift cards last holiday season, and that 62 percent of adults planned to give them as gifts this year.
The Hodgson family, from Cleveland, was in Boston for the holiday and decided to go shopping together on Monday rather than exchanging gifts. Siblings Matt, 29, Chris, 26, and Catie, 21, said they had some gift cards to use from relatives, and expected their spending to top the cards' values.
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