Still have Christmas shopping left to do? Take heart: Youre not alone, and retailers are going to great lengths to lure you into their stores with extended hours and discounts.
Thats 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 seasons 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. Thats below the 17 percent increase comScore was predicting.
And thats 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 Americas 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. Macys, 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 theyre planning to shop Christmas Eve.
Still, Martin said Christmas Eve isnt 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.
Its really never a very effective sales day, he said. Weve seen that historically, throughout the years. Its the last of the last procrastinators.
The day historically doesnt 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.
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 cant get away from it, said Martin. Theres the fiscal cliff, my taxes are going up. And the news in Connecticut is making everyone rethink priorities, he said of last weeks 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 Novembers 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 hasnt yet seen sales figures for the month, but the mall has been swarmed with visitors.
Its been very good, Morosco said. This week has been crazy busy, and I expect its 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 theyve 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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