Save Money in this Sunday's paper

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Still need to shop? Time – and sales – still available

With holiday business slower than expected, retailers take steps to pump up sales

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  • Select store and mall hours Monday, Christmas Eve

    Belk 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    JC Penney 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
    Macy’s 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    Sears 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    Toys ‘R’ Us open until 10 p.m.
    Carolina Place 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    Concord Mills 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    Northlake Mall 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    SouthPark 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

    Note: Hours of individual stores at malls may vary

    Online still an option?

    By Sunday, unfortunately, you’ve missed out on retailers’ offers for free and expedited shipping guaranteed to arrive in time for Christmas. The offers ran out on Friday and Saturday. Overnight shipping deadlines for FedEx and UPS are also past.

    Some retailers are allowing shoppers to purchase online and then pick up their purchases in person at a local store. Toys ‘R’ Us is guaranteeing customers will be able to pick up their purchases as long as they order online by 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve.



Still have Christmas shopping left to do? Take heart: You’re not alone, and retailers are going to great lengths to lure you into their stores with extended hours and discounts.

That’s partly because there are some troubling signs for retailers that sales could be lackluster, at least compared with earlier expectations, as stores head into the holiday season’s home stretch.

Chicago-based ShopperTrak counts foot traffic and sales at tens of thousands of U.S. locations. On Wednesday, the company lowered its forecast for the holiday season sales to 2.5 percent, down from an earlier prediction of 3.3 percent growth the company made in September.

ShopperTrak said sales were down 4.3 percent during the week ended Dec. 15 compared to the same period a year ago. The number of shoppers in stores fell 4.4 percent.

“In the weeks between Black Friday and this very critical week, we saw some softness in consumers’ willingness to participate,” ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin told the Observer.

Online, the story is much the same. Retailers are reporting higher sales, according to e-commerce tracking firm comScore, but not as high as they were expected to be. Online sales were up 13 percent so far this holiday season, topping $35 billion as of last weekend. That’s below the 17 percent increase comScore was predicting.

And that’s leading retailers to offer discounts to shoppers holding out until the last minute.

As last week ended, Aeropostale was offering 60 percent off everything in stores. Charlotte-based Belk was offering varying discounts for different categories, such as up to 50 percent off sleepwear and 25 to 40 percent off kitchen electronics. Toys ‘R’ Us was offering 40 percent off many toys and buy-one-get-one-free deals on others. And Nordstrom was touting new markdowns of 25 to 40 percent on many designer clothes.

Analysts expect those discounts to continue, and perhaps even deepen, right up to the last minute.

“Those retailers who are aggressive and discount heavily will see a huge weekend, while those who decide to not be as promotional will be experiencing Christmas hibernation through the weekend,” said Britt Beemer, CEO of consumer research firm America’s Research Group, in a statement last week. His survey showed more than two-thirds of consumers still had shopping to do this final weekend.

Retailers are also giving shoppers more time to spend. Macy’s, Sears, and JCPenney are both open until midnight on Sunday. Toys ‘R’ Us will be open overnight Sunday and then continuously through 10 p.m. Christmas Eve.

In a Consumer Reports poll released Thursday, 9 percent of consumers, or 17 million people, said they’re planning to shop Christmas Eve.

Still, Martin said Christmas Eve isn’t an important shopping day compared to others in the season. Stores close early, and are lightly staffed with associates whose minds are probably already elsewhere.

“It’s really never a very effective sales day,” he said. “We’ve seen that historically, throughout the years. It’s the last of the last procrastinators.”

The day historically doesn’t make it into the top 10 days for sales. Sunday is likely to be a much busier day, which Martin predicts will end up as the fifth-busiest shopping day of the year.

Gloomy December

Analysts say worries about the economy, stoked by continued high unemployment and talk of the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that are part of the “fiscal cliff,” could be pushing people to watch their wallets.

“All the news in play, you can’t get away from it,” said Martin. “There’s the fiscal cliff, ‘my taxes are going up.’ And the news in Connecticut is making everyone rethink priorities,” he said of last week’s Sandy Hook elementary school shootings.

Another factor, they say, is the length of the holiday shopping period. With Thanksgiving occurring early this year due to November’s five Thursdays, there was the maximum number of days possible between then and Christmas.

Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore, blamed a “prolonged post-Cyber Monday lull” for the slowing online sales.

“Things were strong on Black Friday, then in the industry as a whole we saw something of a lull,” Toys ‘R’ Us CEO Jerry Storch said on CNBC this week. “And the whole world is expecting it to pick up as we get into this last weekend leading to Christmas.”

Not all is doom-and-gloom, however. Phil Morosco, general manager of Northlake Mall, said he hasn’t yet seen sales figures for the month, but the mall has been swarmed with visitors.

“It’s been very good,” Morosco said. “This week has been crazy busy, and I expect it’s going to be more so this weekend.”

And Martin said many retailers might well be happy with a more modest increase in sales than was originally called for in light of the challenges they’ve faced.

“It might not hit our expectations, but from a retail standpoint, they might be happy with a 2.5 percent gain in this world,” he said. The Associated Press contributed.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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