NEW YORK -- Shoppers appear to have given the nation'sstores a needed last-minute sales surge.
Early readings from Toys R Us, Sears Holdings Corp. and severalmall operators show packed stores on Christmas Eve following a busyweek fueled by shoppers who delayed buying, waiting for biggerdiscounts that never came or slowed by last weekend's big EastCoast snowstorm.
Stores are counting on these stragglers in a season that so farappears slightly better than last year's disaster. The jury isstill out, because the week after Christmas accounts for about 15percent of sales as gift card-toting shoppers return to malls.
"The procrastinators were really out in force," says DavidBassuk, managing director in the retail practice of AlixPartners, aglobal business advisory firm. "But I think retailers needed to bemore aggressive to fight for those sales. A lot of people are stillwilling to hold out until after Christmas because the deals weren'tas good."
A Christmas Eve snowstorm in the nation's heartland were slowingsome shoppers after snarling roads in the mountain states a dayearlier.
At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., shoppers werescarce and those who showed up had entire stores to themselves.
Steve Burns, 42, and his 15-year-old daughter, Amber, ofHastings, Minn., took advantage of the empty stores to browse forshirts and other last-minute gifts. Burns said the snow wasn't aproblem and traffic was light because others stayed home.
"It doesn't bother me any," he said.
Some shoppers had challenges finding what they wanted as storeshad slashed their inventories heading into the season. An AnnTaylor store at Westside Pavilion in West Los Angeles pulled in 33cartons of January merchandise earlier than planned, according toRebecca Stenholm, a company spokesman at the mall's operator,
Joe Roberts, 59, left a RadioShack at a mall in Madison, Wis.,with a huge smile and the PlayStation3 his teenage son insisted onfor Christmas.
He said he delayed making the $300 purchase because of economicconcerns. A self-employed designer of manufacturing equipment,Roberts is getting less business every year and his wife might soonlose her job as an office manager.
"I don't feel good about our outlook," he said.
Roberts said they nonetheless decided Wednesday to grant theirson's wish, but then learned the video-game system was sold out at
Best Buy, Walmart and other stores. Roberts finally connected withRadioShack early Thursday and braved icy roads to buy the store'slast one.
Snowy weather can take a toll on sales. Research firmShopperTrak reported Saturday's snow helped fuel a 12.6 percentdrop in sales Saturday compared with a year earlier.
Wally Brewster, spokesman at General Growth Properties saidmerchants in his centers said they had made up for lost sales.Still, he expects overall holiday sales will be only about evenwith a year ago.
Caution remained. Karen MacDonald, spokesman for mall operator
Taubman Centers Inc., noted that stores said many shoppers,remembering the 80 to 90 percent clearance sales they found lastyear, were asking whether the discounts were going to get anydeeper.
And Macerich's Stenholm reported that more people were usingcash to pay for gift cards than a year ago, reflecting tight creditand a desire to pay down debt.
The full picture won't be known until merchants report Decembersales Jan. 7. But most expect merchants' fourth-quarter profitsshould be intact because they didn't have to cut prices more thanthey'd planned as they were cushioned by lean inventories.
ShopperTrak is sticking to its prediction for a 1.6 percentgain, compared with a 5.9 percent drop a year ago.
The National Retail Federation expects that total retail saleswill slip 1 percent, though some experts say that might be a bittoo cautious. A year ago, they fell 3.4 percent by the tradegroup's calculations.
Those concerns were far from most shoppers' minds, though.
Otis Tyler got up early Thursday to take a 12-mile boat ridefrom his home on Smith Island in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay to buyhis Christmas gifts. From there, he drove 40 minutes to The Centreat Salisbury, Md., hoping to pick up gift cards for his wife anddaughter-in-law.
"I always like to do it on Christmas Eve," said Tyler, 60."It's something I've been doing a long time. It's the hustle andbustle that I like."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times