At this time of year, as Morstein's Jewelers fields calls from shoppers trying to make the Christmas Day deadline, third-generation owner Sonny Morstein finds himself asking the same question.
"This is probably over 45 years of saying, 'Why are they waiting until the last minute!'"he said, estimating that about 40 people swung through his doors on Light Street in Federal Hill Tuesday. "They call and we say, 'Well, if you're coming, we'll wait for you.'"
As a slower-than-expected holiday season winds down, many retailers may be wishing they had Morstein's problem. Nationwide, holiday sales at brick-and-mortar stores are projected to grow modestly this year, with retail data firm ShopperTrak predicting just 2.4 percent growth, the most lackluster showing since 2009. In 2012, sales rose 3 percent.
Weather in December kept people home, reducing the number of visits and opportunities for impulse buys, ShopperTrak's founder, Bill Martin, said. Online window shopping compounded the problem, leading people to visit fewer stores when they finally ventured out, he said.
"It's never enough but people are buying," said Morstein, vice president of the South Baltimore Business Association, noting that old standards — diamond earrings and necklaces — have been doing well and watches have made an unexpected comeback. "The last couple of days, it really picks up."
Holiday shopping typically represents at least 20 percent of total retail sales for the year, ShopperTrak's Martin said. Even with sluggish customer spending, 2013 will beat 2012, itself a record-setting year, he said.
"It's the largest volume for retail sales for a holiday season ever, it's just slower growth than people would have assumed the economy would deliver," he said. He said the last days of December should also be strong as people visit stores to return items, redeem certificates and take advantage of post-season sales. Gift cards don't count until they are redeemed, he said.
A National Retail Federation survey of about 6,300 people found that just one in 10 had completed their holiday errands by Dec. 9. Nearly 50 percent said they planned to finish their shopping online.
At the new Target in Canton Crossing, many customers chose to order on the web and pick up in person, store manager Matt Boylan said Tuesday. The store, which kept extended hours and ran last-minute promotions, has beaten sales expectations, he said.
"We had a line at 7 a.m. every morning," he said. "At midnight, we're kicking people out."
Assistant manager Joe O'Brien said there were few signs that the national chain's recent problem with credit card theft had cut into sales in Canton. "If anything, I would say it's picked up more … just because it got closer to the holiday," he said.
About 10 percent of people wait until Christmas Eve to finish their shopping, according to the National Retail Federation.
"I'm a last-minute shopper," said Lorraine Hall, 52, of Baltimore, who bought presents for her five children, six grandchildren and seven brothers and sisters in a three-day frenzy ending Tuesday that produced five cars worth of loot.
"I kind of like the hustle of it," she said. "I like to be in the midst of it all. That gives me the Christmas spirit."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun