Weekend before Christmas is a downer


They enticed them with $10 gift certificates, 40 percent discounts and free gifts, but in the end shoppers failed to deliver the outpouring of spending retailers had hoped for on the last weekend before Christmas.

Retail sales fell a combined 3.3 percent Saturday and Sunday from a year earlier, according to preliminary estimates yesterday by ShopperTrak RCT. Sales on Saturday alone were down a dismal 7 percent from the Saturday before Christmas last year. For the week that ended Saturday, sales were off 5.9 percent from last year, ShopperTrak reported.

Analysts said it may be too late to salvage the season, since the weekend before Dec. 25 is normally the heaviest shopping day of the season. About 10 percent of the holiday season's sales are posted that weekend, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

"Retailers recognized the key weekend was this weekend and it's done," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz and Associates Inc., a national retail, consulting and investment banking firm in New York. "It's not going to happen now. It's over. It's done now. The game is over and now we're going to have a fair Christmas and that's that."

Although some retailers have extended their hours this week to midnight or later, analysts pointed out that they are competing with busy weekday work schedules and other aspects of people's holiday rush.

"Retailers know if they're in trouble by now and I would say some retailers have got to be obviously nervous," said Britt Beemer, president of America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., company that tracks consumer shopping habits.

Jennifer Panuska, a nurse who lives in Parkville, barreled through White Marsh Mall yesterday carrying bags from Macy's, The Limited and New York & Company. Because her job leaves her little time to shop, she found herself cramming it all into one day.

"I'm a one-stop shopper," Panuska said. "Today is it. Anytime after this it's too hectic and too crazy."

There's no one reason for the roller coaster holiday sales showing, which started off exceptionally well the day after Thanksgiving before fizzling shortly after. High gas and energy prices and worries about job stability may be causing shoppers to cut back on spending. After years of spending and accumulating mounds of credit-card debt, Davidowitz believes people may be tapped out.

"The weekend itself was weak and disappointing," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at ICSC. "In a sense it's more of a same story, which is a slow, uneven season that probably is being hurt by a number of factors."

Mike Hood, an admitted procrastinator from Belcamp, said this is the first year he was able to easily find a parking space. The crowds weren't as thick as in previous years, he said.

"I like to wait because you never know if you can catch a sale," said Hood, who works for a bakery.

Changes in shopping patterns may also be affecting sales as more consumers buy goods over the Internet. Online shoppers spent $16.7 billion during the first six weeks of the holiday season, a 28 percent jump from the $13 billion during the comparable period last year, according to a survey by Goldman Sachs & Co., Harris Interactive and Nielsen NetRatings.

Shoppers are also buying more gift cards, which aren't calculated into sales figures until they're cashed in. Yesterday, a line about 75 deep circled the guest services desk at White Marsh Mall as shoppers waited in line for gift cards that could be redeemed at most of the retailers at the mall.

The National Retail Federation is still predicting a 4.5 percent increase in sales. A survey conducted for the group found that nearly 20 percent of holiday sales will occur the week before Christmas. The federation said that people have more reason to procrastinate this year because the season is two days longer than last year. Many people also have Christmas Eve off from work, giving them one more day to shop.

Chris Diveley, 25, bought $300 worth of lingerie and pajamas yesterday from Victoria's Secret for his girlfriend and was headed to J.C. Penney and then Home Depot to shop for his parents.

"I always wait because I never know what I want to buy," Diveley said.

Mike Howard of Perry Hall hates shopping and has convinced himself that it will be less of an ordeal if he waits until the last minute.

"It's faster to come at this time because it's all people like me who want to get in, buy it and get out," said Howard as he carried a Victoria's Secret bag and a box from The Bombay Store.

The federation also says sales typically get a boost the week after Christmas when 10 percent of holiday sales are posted as consumers redeem gift cards and look for sales.

"This year the weekend before Christmas is probably not the best indicator of the holiday season only because Christmas falls so late in the week that many people have chosen to procrastinate until closer to Christmas Day itself," said retail federation spokeswoman Ellen Tolley.

"We're not looking for a blockbuster increase," Tolley said. "We're looking for a moderate increase and we're confident retailers will see that increase."

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