It's that time of year again for carols, 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. At CVS drugstore in Decatur, Ga., on Saturday morning, he picked up candy and a neck pillow for his wife. He had started shopping at 6 a.m. at Starbucks, where he bought a mug. He planned to be finished shopping well before his Christmas Eve dinner at 6 p.m.
"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 sales for the season. Retailers tempered their expectations heading into the season because Americans were still worried about 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.
"We're seeing good traffic, good sales, not over-the-top sales, but a nice 3 percent to 4 percent increase over last year." 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 worried about the weak economy, retailers weren't willing to leave anything to chance on the last day to shop before Christmas.
Macy's and Toys R Us were open for 24 hours in the days leading up to Christmas. At malls, Abercrombie & Fitch offered a blanket 50 percent off on all items while J. Crew and Madewell offered 30 percent off. And promotional e-mails from retailers were up 34 percent from a year ago, according to Responsys, which tracks e-mail activity from more than 100 merchants.
"They're clearly putting best foot forward on promotions right now," said John Morris, analyst at BMO Capital Markets, who estimates 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.
"The key here is last few days and week after Christmas," for retailers, Mityas said. "How much they can capture that customer for their second or third trip. Getting that last procrastinator trip is great but now you want them to come back in for returns, gift cards, and spend a little bit more." That will mean "getting that extra percentage point of sales that happens last six or seven days of December
The sales and incentives — or plain old procrastination— are drawing at least some last-minute shoppers in on the final days.
About 150,000 shoppers were expected at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., on Friday, 50 percent increase from a normal day shopping.
"We're getting good foot traffic, a lot of people seem to be on a mission," said Dan Jasper, Mall of America vice president of public relations, on Friday. He added that the new release of Nike Air Jordan XI Retro Concords boosted traffic. About 8,000 people were lined up for the shoe when Mall of America opened its doors at 6 a.m.
Last-minute shopper Ryan Eagle, 25, said he would 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, I enjoy going out and watching everyone run around," he said.
Mae Anderson reported from Atlanta, Ga.