Extended shopping season

A Saturday Christmas gives people an full day to crowd into malls on Christmas Eve.

December 25, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Enabled by a day off from work and clear weather and motivated by a ticking clock, shoppers circled the malls yesterday for the perfect gifts - or their acceptable last-minute alternatives.

At White Marsh Mall, Macy's offered half-off Santa-themed ceramic dishes, Bath & Body Works displayed discounted ornament-shaped containers, and Gap and Victoria's Secret showed off their usual fare. A "real" St. Nick drew a line of people but not as long as the one for gift cards.

Christmas Eve isn't typically among the holiday season's busiest shopping days. But this year, because Christmas falls on a Saturday and government offices and most businesses were closed yesterday in observance, customers got an extra day to try to help push retailers' ho-ho-hum sales numbers a little ahead of those of the disappointing 2003 season.

Most people at the mall were taking advantage of bigger-than-usual discounts and buying a few gifts for the previously forgotten, difficult or extra-special.

"Every year for the last 30 years I say I won't wait until the last minute, and every year I do," said Rose Miller of Joppatowne. "I'm usually off Christmas Eve day from work, so I come here. It's a bit of a chore but not really that bad. Maybe a little fun."

There were obviously gleeful bargain hunters such as Lisa Mack, who was buying herself a Christmas gift of pants at New York and Company, and her sister Tanya Mack, who found good deals at Bath & Body Works.

Some patiently waited for others to shop, such as the Mack sisters' children, who sat quietly on a display table at the front of a store.

And there were those who would rather not be at the mall at all. Chief among them was James Blunt, who was visiting his daughters and grandchildren from York, Pa., and had not done any shopping before yesterday.

With Amazon.com and other Internet purchases no longer an option at this late date - and with the added impetus of big sales and the government holiday - the malls across the nation were especially busy yesterday, retail analysts said.

Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., company that tracks consumer behavior, said mall parking lots are usually full Christmas Eve, and that the stores are crowded with men buying for a wife or girlfriend.

"It not usually the woman out on Christmas Eve day, who buys, six, seven, eight or nine gifts," he said. "But our surveys show that a large number of people didn't finish their shopping as early as planned."

That prompted the unusually big discounts, because retailers had inventory piling up. So, Beemer said, the 50 percent of shoppers who had told him they would be finished by Monday kept shopping when they saw advertisements in newspapers and on television.

Some people also might be out replacing gifts stuck in FedEx warehouses because of snow in the Midwest and South. The Memphis, Tenn.-based shipping giant said some express shipments wouldn't make it by Christmas and that their money-back guarantee was temporarily suspended.

The National Retail Federation, which predicted a 4.5 percent increase in sales this holiday season over last year's, said gift-buying was slow early in the season. But shoppers broke out the credit cards last week and went to work boosting the figures.

Usually, about 20 percent of shopping is done in the last week, but yesterday's sales might increase that percentage this year. And the total for the season will get a boost when after-Christmas sale figures and gift card purchases are counted, said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman for the federation.

Tolley said most popular gifts this year were luxury items such as jewelry, apparel, computer games and other high-technology items, and gift cards.

Jamie Roeder, a teacher from Parkville, said she meant to buy her gift cards earlier but that school kept her distracted until yesterday. She found a line about two dozen deep at the mall's customer service counter.

"I was going to get one general gift card for the mall and one for a specific store, but I think I'll get them both for the mall so I only have to wait in one line," she said. "We'll get it all done today. My husband stayed home to wrap presents. ... And it's not that bad a line."

Perhaps not as bad as the lines tomorrow, when retail experts predict that one in five consumers will return to the stores to troll for deals.

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