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 to be slightly better than last year’s disastrous holiday period.
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 were delaying 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 outside. 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 Kohls’ checkout line Thursday morning. 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,” she laughed.
Susan Visconti was rifling through lacy tops looking for a small size for her daughter at the juniors section. No such luck.
“I’m only going to buy what I planned for, wrap them up and get back to making cookies,’ she said.
The 51-year-old hadn’t planned on shopping on Christmas Eve but said the pile under her tree looked small last night, so she had to get more.
“By the time I got done wrapping, I said this is bad,” said Visconti, of Solon, Ohio.
It’s unclear how much stores along the East Coast were hurt by the winter storm that caused sales to plummet on Saturday, billed as the biggest or second biggest sales day of the season. Research firm ShopperTrak reported sales nationally dropped 12.6 percent compared with a year ago. But some analysts and 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 snowed-in shoppers, a number of stores and malls, including Toys R Us, Target Corp. and mall operator General Growth Properties extended their hours this week.
“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.” He noted that consumers were “serious about buying” this past week.
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 on Saturday because of the last-minute buying surge. He reported that business was brisk on 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, including J.C. Penney and Target, 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, the world’s largest retail trade group, 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.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.