Gifts keep coming in big markdowns

Card recipients, bargain hunters fill stores

December 27, 2006|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,Sun reporter

Last year Nick Gill got what he thought were unstylish holiday gifts, so this year his Christmas list was short and simple: gift cards and cash, please.

Gill's request was granted to the tune of $700 in cash and gift cards, and yesterday the 20-year-old college student from Parkville spent the morning with his brother and a neighborhood friend at Towson Town Center shopping.

"Last year it just didn't work out with the clothes they were getting me," Gill said, as he toted bags from Pacific Sun and other stores. "This way I can get what I want."

Retailers are counting on consumers like Gill to help boost sales in the final week of the holiday season.

Christmas is over, but the holiday season, which includes the full months of November and December, is still in swing. Last year, 15.6 percent of holiday sales were made from Dec. 25 to 31, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Consumers crowded stores and malls yesterday looking for bargains as retailers began winter clearance sales to make room for spring merchandise. Customers stood in line to return ill-fitting sweaters and pants that didn't suit their tastes. It was also the day people began redeeming gift cards, a trend that has many retailers pushing to get analysts to include the month of January, when many people use their cards, as part of the holiday sales season.

Like a typical holiday season, this year's started with a huge turnout on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, as consumers stood in lines before sunrise to catch door-buster bargains. Spending then slowed in the early part of December as expected. But the shopping respite was longer than some analysts predicted, as shoppers waited until the Saturday and Sunday before Christmas, which fell on a Monday, to make their last purchases of gifts.

Analysts blamed several factors for the prolonged slowdown, including a long weekend before Christmas and warm weather that meant shoppers were in no rush to buy coats and mittens.

"There was a little more procrastination this year," said Patrice Duker, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It really picked up the week before Christmas. Because the season this year had a full weekend of shopping before the holiday, consumers just felt they had more time to shop."

Ground was picked up on "Super Saturday," or the Saturday before Christmas. Preliminary sales results estimated $8.72 billion in sales that day, a 61.7 percent increase from the same day last year, according to ShopperTrak RTC Corp., which tracks retail sales. It was the second-largest shopping day after Black Friday.

Analysts now expect holiday sales to come in as forecast - a modest increase, but not as large as last year's. The shopping centers council predicts a 2.5 percent increase at chain stores. Ernst & Young forecast a 6.5 percent increase for all retail stores.

"We still expect it to be a healthy holiday season," said Jay McIntosh, head of the retail practice at Ernst & Young.

But retailers need this final week of sales to make the numbers. Many stores opened early yesterday and offered post-Christmas bargains to lure in shoppers.

Area malls such as Towson Town Center opened at 8 a.m. Macy's opened its doors at 7 a.m. and slashed prices by 50 percent to 75 percent. Bath & Body Works was selling its fruity smelling lotions and soaps for $5. The Limited marked down all pants and skirts by 40 percent. Crate & Barrel halved the price of its Christmas merchandise.

Susan Serotte, a 58-year-old teacher from Ruxton, was in Crate & Barrel stocking up on wrapping paper and decorations for next year.

"It's kind of a tradition," Serotte said about the post-holiday sales. "It's fun - and you can't beat the deals."

By noon yesterday Ann Bunch had hit the sales at Nordstrom and Macy's. "The day after is when you find the major bargains," said Bunch, 58 and retired from the Social Security Administration.

The weekend after Christmas has become important in recent years, mainly because of gift-card sales.

"People know the sales are available, and they're going to cash in their gift cards," said Samantha Harris, marketing director at Towson Town Center.

Holly Parrish and Jordan Hayes, high school students from Westminster, were shopping at Towson Town Center yesterday with gift cards they received for Christmas.

"My mom has learned," said Parrish, 17. "Just give me gift cards and cash."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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