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Retailers turn focus to post-holiday discounts

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/26/17/55/1t35Vw.Em.138.jpeg|316
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    Shoppers make their way down the escalator at Northlake Mall on Thursday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/26/17/55/sAYkk.Em.138.jpeg|183
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    Shoppers crowd Northlake Mall Thursday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/26/17/55/1eRZjm.Em.138.jpeg|415
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    Shoppers crowd Northlake Mall Thursday. Thousands flocked to area malls to make gift returns and take advantage of sales.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/26/17/55/1nF8Mw.Em.138.jpeg|166
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    Shoppers make their way to the parking lot at Northlake Mall Thursday.

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Thousands of shoppers flocked to stores across Charlotte on Thursday to use gift cards, hunt for bargains and return unwanted presents, as retailers offered discounts to lure customers at the end of a mixed holiday shopping season.

Pamela Ward sat in the SouthPark mall food court with her mother, daughter and daughter’s friend. Bags from Belk and Hollister were scattered around their feet – the spoils of the girls’ Christmas money and gift cards.

“They wanted to spend their Christmas cash,” Ward said.

Retailers are hoping that millions of other Americans will follow their example in the coming days, boosting overall sales in a shopping season marked by tight competition and the ever-growing reach of online retailer Amazon.com.

Holiday shopping is crucial for many stores, and by extension much of the economy. The weeks of holiday shopping in November and December can account for up to 40 percent of retailers’ sales. The National Retail Federation is predicting sales will rise a modest 3.9 percent, to $602 billion.

After-Christmas sales are important for many retailers, who don’t get to count revenue from gift card sales until that card is redeemed. According to a National Retail Federation survey, about 80 percent of consumers planned to buy someone a gift card this holiday season.

In many ways, this year’s holiday shopping season was a season of mixed signals. Economic growth was revised upward for the most recent quarter, consumer spending rose in November by the most in five months and consumer confidence jumped. Stock markets hit record highs, home sales stayed strong and unemployment continued to fall.

The holiday season was six days shorter than last year, because Thanksgiving fell a week later. To compensate, major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Toys R Us rolled out early discounts and opened earlier than ever on Thanksgiving Day. Sales numbers for bricks-and-mortar retailers were still tepid in December.

Overall, retailers ended up with a decent season, according to MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse. Heavy spending in the final days of the mostly lackluster season sent sales up 3.5 percent between Nov. 1 and Tuesday. SpendingPulse tracks all forms of payments, in-store and online, but doesn’t give dollar figures.

But bricks-and-mortar sales and shopper traffic looks like it was tougher.

On the Saturday before Christmas, typically one of the busiest days of the year, sales at bricks-and-mortar stores were down 0.7 percent from last year, according to retail tracking firm ShopperTrak. For the preceding week, in-store sales were down 3.5 percent compared with last year. The number of store visits fell 21.2 percent.

ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said the total number of shoppers was flat, but they visited “dramatically” fewer stores this year than last. He attributed much of that to the growth of online shopping and said more consumers are buying in November than before. Over the past decade, November has grown to account for 46 percent of holiday sales, up from 41.4 percent, Martin said.

“November is starting to take away some of December’s luster,” Martin said. “That’s purposeful by retailers, to get to the wallet early.”

Martin said some of the steep discounts many retailers are offering this week were planned to draw in consumers, but some likely are not.

“It’s hard to tell if the discounts we’re seeing today are planned, or if they’re a bit of desperation,” Martin said. “They seem awfully steep. Nobody’s planning to have 60 to 70 percent off.”

“When I see those kinds of numbers, I suspect they’re doing everything they can to get merchandise out the door,” Martin said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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