Business

Retailers count on procrastinators, discounts to drive up Christmas sales

Posted December 24, 2007 6:59 a.m. EST
Updated November 18, 2008 11:57 a.m. EST

— Triangle shoppers – taking advantage of deep discounts and expanded hours – jammed stores over the last weekend before Christmas trying to grab last-minute gifts and hard-to-find items. But the spending surge may not be enough to offset what is shaping up to be a mediocre December for some retailers.

Retailers faced particular hurdles in getting shoppers through the doors this holiday season: high gas prices, a suffering housing market and overall challenging economy.

"I think that's affecting the psychology of the consumer," Dr. Mike Walden, an economists with North Carolina State University, said. "Consumer confidence is down, and I think there is a lot of evidence the economy is slowing down."

The National Retail Federation projected that holiday sales will fall below the 10-year average and be the slowest since 2002.

In the Triangle, last-minute Christmas shoppers were getting deep discounts on final presents and stocking stuffers but said they were surprised at the lack of crowds.

"This is not bad at all," said Phil Myers, who was shopping at Crabtree Valley Mall with his wife, Lisa. "I mean, it was easy to park, and there's not a lot of people. Now, it will probably get more crowded after lunch."

Mark Pitney, 62, said he has seen a lot more markdowns this year. He did some last-minute shopping at a J.C. Penney in Raleigh, where he had staff pull the last medium-sized sweater off a mannequin. The item was discounted 60 percent.

"You can get some serious discounts, and I took advantage of them," shopper Henry Vanderbilt Johnson said.

Retailers said the discounts appeared to be doing their job, and helping the Triangle buck a national slowdown in sales.

J.C. Penney district manager John Graber said despite concerns about the economy, this year's Christmas shopping traffic has appeared stronger than last year.

"We are very encouraged by the traffic. We are very encouraged by the sales today. So far, so good," Travis Groome, merchandise coordinator at the Crabtree Belk, said.

N.C. Sports and Gifts saw a good amount of traffic on Christmas Eve, manager Kath Manley said. The store carries lots of stocking stuffers, "so you have people picking up little things," Manley said.

Groome attributed Belk's success to clever marketing strategies. Although the store was not as crowded as on past Christmas Eves, Groome said that was due to expanded hours letting people shop at different times.

Belk also doubled the amount of coupons it offered this year to get people in early, he said.

"It's all about marketing and getting people in the doors if we are going to be here," Groome said.

Johnson represented a segment of the market store managers said they were relying on to boost the number of Christmas Eve shoppers: men. The National Retail Federation (NRF) reported that a fifth of men had not started their shopping by last week.

"There's a lot of people like me out there waiting until the last minute," Hoese said. "I don't want to isolate our breed that way, but yeah, mainly men."

"I think most men are serious procrastinators," Johnson said. "Shopping isn't something we enjoy doing."