Christmas shopping is far from finished, to merchants' relief

After-holiday discounts and gift-card redeeming keep stores optimistic

4% sales increase predicted

December 27, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Christmas is over, but somebody forgot to tell the shoppers.

To the delight of merchants - less than joyous over so-so pre-Christmas sales - a horde of buyers showed up yesterday to help boost the seasonal take.

Crowded parking lots and lines at store counters were reported at many malls around the Baltimore region and across the nation.

Bob Zinsmeister, who led his family from their Millersville home to Arundel Mills mall yesterday, said they felt more comfortable this year spending money on Christmas presents, and on the family vacation, because their financial conditions improved when his wife, Kathy Zinsmeister, returned to work recently.

Thanks to the Zinsmeisters and others like them, national Christmas sales are expected to be up about 4 percent over last year's once the numbers are calculated and returns are logged.

Beyond the overtime shopping, experts say, the season is likely to get a big boost this year from booming sales of plastic gift cards. Amazon.com sold 70,000 on Dec. 24 alone. Analysts predict that redemption of the cards will account for up to 10 percent of sales, or $20 billion.

Without counting the cards, spending in November and December has outpaced sales in the past several somewhat-dismal years, but as of the day after Christmas many retailers remained less than satisfied.

"The season is still going," said Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "The post-Christmas period will be important, given the rise in gift card usage. They will ultimately make or break the season for some retailers."

Niemira said about 80 percent of the cards will be spent in the next 30 days. Many shoppers are expected to spend over their limits, giving retailers another boost. He attributes the rise in gift cards, sales of which have doubled in the past five years, to the simple fact that people like them.

The total spent on the cards may have grown even more this year because some people have more to spend as the economy improves.

The Zinsmeisters waited for the day-after-Christmas sales to buy clothing and gear for their coming ski trip. They had been shopping for about an hour when they took a break.

Bob Zinsmeister, 54, and his 10-year-old son, Adam, slumped on the edge of a planter, their Santa's sack-sized shopping bags beside them.

"It's not too bad here today," Bob Zinsmeister said, surveying the crowds. "We prepared ourselves for this."

The skies were clear yesterday, but Northeast storms earlier in the season and possible security concerns drove more people online this year, retail analysts said. Free shipping for many online shoppers helped.

Amazon.com reported its strongest year in sales. The company, which sells a variety of goods over the Internet in six countries, hit a one-day sales record before Christmas with 2.1 million orders, although officials declined to say which day.

The company added jewelry and gourmet foods this year and shipped items over $25 for free. Norelco shavers, automatic jar openers and robotic vacuums, and DVD movie versions of Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were big sellers.

Experts say, however, that worries about the economy and 5.9 percent unemployment are still hampering sales.

Discounters do better

Discounters, which performed well during the past few lean years, have done better this year.

Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, reported that sales at stores open more than a year were up about 3 percent, the low end of their growth forecast for the season.

Sales at walmart.com, however, were up 60 percent compared with last year, double the industry average, the company said.

Electronics and gift packages of food have been big sellers. Toys such as Legos and Barbies also were popular.

Wal-Mart said it expected gift cards to add to December's tally.

"People used to think they were impersonal, but now everyone sees them for what they are, the perfect gift in the right size and right color," said spokeswoman Sharon Weber.

Another bright retailing territory this year has been the high-end luxury stores, as stock market gains have spurred the well-to-do to spend big.

At Len Stoler Lexus in Owings Mills, the lot has gotten a lot of traffic, according to Allan Franklin, a sales associate.

"We're generally very busy around the holiday season, but it's better this year," he said. "And people really do put bows around cars like in the commercial. More put a key chain in a box with a card that says the car will be ready Dec. 30."

At Berman's Jewelers in Ellicott City, diamond engagement rings and diamond stud earrings have been hot sellers. Sam Fribush, the store's president, said he's confident that when he counts his sales they'll be higher than last year's.

Bluefly Inc., a 5-year-old New York-based online retailer of luxury apparel and home items, also benefited from the move to the upscale and the move online. Sales were up 35 percent.

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