Retailers woo last-minute shoppers with lower prices, longer hours

As the clock counts down to Christmas Day, retailers have begun a big push to snare procrastinating shoppers searching frantically for last-minute gifts and hoping for final-weekend deals.

Relishing the prospect of many all-day shoppers Saturday, stores across the nation are also extending hours, cutting prices and renewing bargain offers.

Toys R Us stores nationwide began an all-day-all-night marathon that began Tuesday and continues until 10 p.m. Christmas Eve. That’s a day longer than last year’s endurance test. JCPenney stores are open until midnight Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday. In the Southland, several Macy’s stores — including those at Glendale Galleria, Northridge Fashion Center and South Coast Plaza — have been staying open until 2 a.m. with late hours continuing through Saturday morning. Sears also jumped on the bandwagon with 260 stores nationwide open until midnight through Friday, with promotions that include a buy-one, get-one-free toy sale until Christmas Eve.

Their targets: last-minute buyers who appear to be in greater numbers this year. As of Sunday, a national survey found, about 9% of shoppers hadn’t even started buying for the holidays, and 30% had more to do.

“At this point, we are focusing on all those procrastinating shoppers,” said Brian Hanover, spokesman at Sears Holding Corp., which owns the Sears and Kmart chains. “We have a last-minute gift sale” geared toward customers that wait until the last minute.


For shoppers, the weekend craze represents a final opportunity to pick up gifts for friends and family. For merchants, who depend on the holiday season for a huge portion of annual sales, it’s a crucial last-minute effort. And for the nation’s economy, what happens at the cash registers this season will be an important indicator of the country’s financial recovery.

“With the housing market in the doldrums, consumer spending, which is about 70% of the U.S. economy, has become ever more important to set the pace of the recovery,” said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University in Orange. Robust buying during the holidays will help spur growth in the economy as a whole, he said.

During the busy holiday season, retail experts have been tracking spending week by week. Shopping got underway in earnest on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and continued through the following Cyber Monday online rush. But in the two weeks that followed, experts said, sales fell into a lull. Since then, things have picked up again.

Last week, holiday shoppers returned to the malls in big numbers, sending sales surging 21.7% from the previous week, according to consumer research firm ShopperTrak in Chicago. And stores are packed again this week.

“Consumers are back in shopping mode this week,” said Jackie Fernandez, a retail partner at accounting and consulting firm Deloitte & Touche. “They’ve been conditioned by retailers over the years that the closer we get to the holidays the more things go on sale.”

“You’ll continue to see a number of promotions until Christmas and still an abundance of free shipping offers, considering we only have a few days left,” she said. “The retailers with inventory still on hand will need to move it, so they’ll discount more.”

ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said the rush is on. “We’re seeing a normal rise in sales as people are struggling to finish” buying gifts, Martin said. “The two biggest weeks of the retail selling cycle for the year, ending Dec. 17 and Dec. 24, are happening right now. These two weeks are big weeks. So far it looks pretty strong.”

At Westfield Century City on Wednesday night, shopper Norma Ayala, 46, charged through the mall on the lookout for Christmas presents for her entire family.

“I’m always a last-minute shopper. I’m really busy working, and there are just better deals if you wait,” said the Los Angeles human resources manager. “The next two days, I’ll be shopping for everyone: the in-laws, the kids. It’s going to be a lot of running around.”

Nearby, Anastasia Antonova, 26, was on a mission with Ed Walrath. “We’re here for a gift for his newborn niece,” said Antonova, an accountant from Los Angeles. “I bought everyone else gifts months ago. We only need presents for people we didn’t know would exist this year.”

Retailers’ last-minute gift promotions this week are on par with last year, analysts say. After the first couple of holiday seasons during the economic downturn, stores learned to manage their inventories more carefully and reduced the drastic price-slashing common in 2008 and 2009, said Sherif Mityas, a partner in the retail practice at consulting firm A.T. Kearney Inc.

“You are still seeing banners up advertising 50% off, but those are planned, and it’s 50% off select items and not the entire store,” Mityas said. “Retailers don’t have to do extreme discounting. They are starting to sell through inventory, and the regular markdown plan they have is actually working.”

The robust Black Friday weekend prompted several industry groups to upgrade their forecast for the holiday season to 3% to 4% growth over last year — meaning a decent but not terrific season for retailers.

According to ShopperTrak, sales were up 2.5% from Nov. 1 through Saturday compared with the same period last year. A strong 4.1% sales jump in November has been followed by weaker 0.5% growth in December thus far.

Even after the presents are unwrapped Sunday, the shopping party is still not over. The day after Christmas is traditionally another big day for retailers.

Industry watchers say retailers will roll out new products, many at full price, to attract consumers streaming into stores and malls to redeem gift cards and return ill-fitting (and presumably unattractive) clothes and other unwanted gifts.

“The 26th will be a telling day,” Martin said. “If retailers are overburdened with inventory, if we see 65% or 75% off, that’s an indication that the season didn’t go as good as they hoped.”

If not, then prepare for rock-bottom prices, Martin said, but only on items “no one wanted in the first place.”