With a shortened holiday season punctuated by weekend winter storms, holiday shoppers in Maryland are feeling the pressure.
There are six fewer days this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas than last year. And three Baltimore-area snowfalls in three days the second week of December have distracted others from buying.
"I've been in denial," said Ann DiAddezio, a York, Pa., restaurateur who was loaded down with shopping bags Saturday morning as she walked briskly past stores at Towson Town Center. "It's been one year where time just got away from me. I realized I needed to get to the stores."
With less than two weeks before Christmas, shoppers hit the stores over the weekend. Some, like DiAddezio, were making up for lost time. Others said the tighter shopping window instead motivated them to start earlier than usual, and they were working to wrap up gift buying by Sunday.
This year, it felt like Thanksgiving came and went and suddenly just more than a week remains before Christmas, said Karen Carter, who was shopping Saturday with her sister and nephew at Towson Town Center.
"Usually by this time, I'd be further along with shopping," said Carter, who works for a health insurer. By midday, she'd found a sweater at Nordstrom for her daughter, who is away at college, but was far from done. "I have to get something for my husband," she said.
It's still unclear how holiday retail sales will end up being affected by the calendar shift along with the early snow and ice.
Some of the biggest shopping days of the year are likely still to come, with the second biggest day after Black Friday expected to be the Saturday before Christmas, according to ShopperTrak, which reports retail sales and traffic. The firm has not adjusted its forecast of a 2.4 percent increase in holiday retail sales.
But so far, the season is falling short of expectations, said Bill Martin, ShopperTrak's founder. Sales rose just 2.1 percent in November. And in the first week of December, sales fell 2.9 percent, ShopperTrak reported.
"The snowstorms couldn't have come at a worse time, right at the time when [retailers] expected shoppers to get back in to the stores," Martin said. "We're a little short of expectations, leaving catch up work in December."
The scenario could play out in a couple of ways, he said. Pent-up demand could propel shoppers out closer to Christmas and push sales up. Or shoppers could be tapped out after shopping over the Black Friday kickoff weekend, when many retailers opened their doors earlier than ever on Thanksgiving and more than 141 million people shopped over the weekend, according to the National Retail Federation.
"I'd expect to see some stronger sales," and a pick up in traffic, Martin said. "Consumers are probably in pretty good shape. Unemployment is down and incomes are stable, so there's good economic news around that."
Amy Pletz, an office manager from Essex, went out Saturday to The Avenue in White Marsh to buy hostess gifts for a holiday party, then planned to head to Costco for gifts for relatives. She'd already done the bulk of her shopping, buying toys for her daughters, ages 4 and 6, on Black Friday.
"I knew it was a shorter season, so I decided to start immediately the day after Thanksgiving," Pletz said, adding that the early start paid off. "The decorations are done. The presents are wrapped and hidden. I do feel less pressure this year, because I knew I didn't have time to spare."
Leslie Walker, an accountant from Essex, said she's mostly finished, too.
"Last year was a mad rush," Walker said. "This year I'm almost done."
Carolynn Black, however was feeling the time crunch.
"I am not even close to done," said Black, who had come off an early morning shift at Middle River Aircraft Systems before heading to stores in White Marsh on Saturday morning. She had bought gifts for only one of her three teenage children, but was taking it all in stride.
"They want what they want, but they're not getting it because I can't afford it," she said of requests for computers and smart phones. "Christmas is first a holiday, time to be with family."
Consumers are far more price conscious than they were even five years ago, and the depth of discounts offered will likely have a bigger impact on the season than the number of shopping days, said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a consumer research and marketing firm.
"It's not how many days there are between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it's how many days there are between Thanksgiving and Christmas when consumers see 50 percent off," Beemer said. "Last year, there was an extra week, and retail sales were a disaster."
The firm's research shows that as of Dec. 9, more consumers had finished shopping at that point in the season than at any time in the last decade. Nearly a third said they are completely or 90 percent finished.
"What happens in the mindset of a lot of consumers, they look at Black Friday and the weekend before Christmas as the whole shopping season," Beemer said. "Whatever happens in between isn't a big deal, so missing a few days doesn't affect them."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun