Bargain hunters and latecomers flocked to stores this weekend as the retail industry made its last big push for pre-Christmas sales with increased discounts and other come-ons.
But the late-buying binge was not enough to meet sales goals, and retailers are now turning to post-Christmas business to make this season a merry one, according to one report from a national research company.
"These were big days, but they came up short in terms of traffic and sales," said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak RCT Corp., a research firm, referring to this past Friday and Saturday. ShopperTrak monitors total retail sales at more than 45,000 outlets.
After a stronger-than-expected turnout on the Friday after Thanksgiving, stores struggled through the first two weeks of December as consumers shopped at a disappointing pace.
Mild temperatures throughout most of the country didn't inspire shoppers to buy winter items. And with Christmas falling on a Monday, the season became another nail-biter for retailers as consumers procrastinated with a full weekend to shop before the holiday.
"This is the best time in the world to shop," said Chuck Mingrone of East Haven, Conn., who was leaving a Bath & Body Works store at the Westfield Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, Conn., on Christmas Eve. He said he expected to do all his holiday shopping in two hours.
"I do it every year like this," Mingrone continued. "There are no lines and everyone is smiling. Every year, my family makes fun of me for doing this, but they are the ones who are frantic in lines."
Others were forced to shop late for lack of time or because they hadn't been in the mood.
"I don't know. Christmas just crept up on me this year," said Aimee Lovan of Des Moines, who was at the Valley West Mall in West Des Moines. "And also the weather. It's been so warm, so I haven't been in a Christmas mood."
Based on data released late Sunday by ShopperTrak, Friday and Saturday generated a combined $16.2 billion, with Saturday's business generating $8.72 billion. But Martin had expected Saturday's volume to surpass the $8.96 billion in sales on the day after Thanksgiving.
Average weekly sales for December compared with 2005 are up 4.3%, short of ShopperTrak's 5% holiday forecast.
"We still have the week after Christmas," Martin said. "We are going to need a lot of gift card redemptions." Gift cards are not recorded on a retailer's balance sheet until the cards are redeemed.
This holiday season, consumers shopped early for flat-panel TVs, hot toys such as T.M.X. Elmo and new consoles such as Sony's Playstation3, but they held off on apparel, creating a mixed holiday picture.
Bright spots have been the online business and luxury stores. But many mall-based apparel chains were challenged by increased competition from department stores such as Federated Department Stores Inc.'s Macy's and J.C. Penney Co.
Still, many mall-based stores kept to their promotional calendar throughout the season, refusing to give in to shoppers' pressure for the best deal. This past weekend, stores slashed prices to tempt shoppers, though Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group, a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y., said that most merchants still weren't panicking. Stores are realizing that the holiday season also includes January, he said.
But some stores were pulling out all the stops. Gap Inc., which has been languishing, took additional markdowns on a wide variety of items, including T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts and jean jackets, at its namesake stores.
Those who delayed shopping saw big benefits.
Retired school principal Carol Beck, now of Durham, N.C., was doing most of her holiday shopping Sunday and finished in about 30 minutes. She said she spent $150 and bought most things at 50% off.
Other shoppers were already done but came to the mall Sunday to see whether any other items struck their fancy.
"I buy extra gifts just in case I forget people," said Mina Singzon of Los Angeles, who was at the Glendale Galleria. "That happens sometimes."