Bracing for late rush

Weekend before Christmas has stores wanting to be overrun with shoppers

December 21, 2007|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN REPORTER

Too often this week, Xavier Henry would look across the racks of sweater dresses, skinny jeans and other trendy clothing at his Melrose Place Boutique and see few, if any, customers.

It's indicative of the sluggish holiday shopping season. Consumers stressed out about high energy, gas and food prices have cut back on their spending.

Retailers such as Henry, whose store is at Security Square Mall, are hoping their bottom lines will improve starting today. It's the final weekend of the holiday shopping season, when procrastinators and those holding out for the steepest discounts are expected to crowd stores for last-minute shopping.

Henry doesn't know if it will make up for the entire year, but it will help, he said. He plans to mark down some items as much as 25 percent.

"Clothes right now are a luxury," Henry said. "People are more worried about their electric bill. But I'm hoping that people will still come in because they want to buy gifts and make people happy for Christmas."

Stores and malls are extending their hours, some such as Macy's to as late as midnight.

Shoppers can also expect deep price cuts as stores try to sell off excess inventory. But popular items, such as the Nintendo Wii, will still be hard to find.

Electronics, such as flat-screen televisions and iPod accessories, have been selling better than clothing, analysts say.

"Retailers should get a lot of sleep before this weekend," said Ed Farrell, associate director of the Consumer Reports National Retail Center, a division of Consumer Reports magazine that follows retail patterns.

"This last weekend headed up to the holiday is going to be absolutely crazy. We're talking about hundreds of million of people who are trying to get their shopping done," he said.

The weekend before Christmas has competed in recent years with the day after Thanksgiving as the busiest shopping time of the holiday season. Many consumers try to wait out retailers who often discount more heavily toward the end of the season.

"It is typical for the last weekend before Christmas to see significant crowds in the stores, especially as we enter the homestretch of the holiday season," said Elina Kazan, a spokeswoman for Macy's.

This weekend may be even more critical for some retailers than in previous years because consumers are being extra cautious with their spending in light of the high prices of gas, utilities and food. The National Retail Federation predicts that sales will increase 4 percent this holiday season - the weakest growth in five years.

Other analysts are more pessimistic. Britt Beemer of America's Research Group lowered his prediction for increased sales this season from 2 percent to 1 percent. He said retailers haven't been offering the heavy discounts that consumers want.

The season began with a surge in sales on Black Friday but has been dismal since. Bad weather in some regions made an already difficult shopping season even worse for retailers, analysts said. ShopperTrak, a Chicago firm that tracks retail sales, said that sales for the week ending Dec. 15 decreased 0.4 percent compared with a year ago.

"The season has been slow and we're expecting a lot of catching up on the part of the shopper this weekend," said Frank Meyer, general manager at Security Square. The mall is staying open until 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

The manager at Downtown Locker Room in Security Square is hoping to attract people with the launch of a new style of Michael Jordan sneakers. She also said prices on already-marked- down items will be reduced another 30 percent. "It's going to be bananas in here this weekend - crazy crowded," predicted the manager, Tamla Smith.

A Consumer Reports survey released this week found that 35 percent of people hadn't started shopping yet. About 10 percent said they won't finish until Christmas Eve. The retail federation said this week that 1 in 5 men had yet to buy any gifts.

India Hall, a retired clerk from Baltimore, said she still has six people to buy gifts for.

"Time just slipped by," said Hall, 73, who was buying a tablecloth and decorations at Security this week. "I don't know what to get them, so I might just end up buying gift cards."

As she sat in the food court of the mall earlier this week surrounded by bags, Lyby Amaya said she had finished about 40 percent of her shopping. The 38-year-old day-care provider said the later you wait, the better the deals. "I wait until the last week every year," she said.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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