Last-minute shoppers may have helped retailers save a holiday shopping season that got off to a sluggish start, pouring into stores the week before Christmas and continuing their buying frenzy the day after the holiday.
Many stores won't release final sales numbers until next week, but early indications are that retailers will meet their goals thanks to the late surge. Gift cards could boost holiday sales even further if consumers cash them in this week.
"The last-minute shoppers were a very big factor this year," said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman with the National Retail Federation. "They helped many retailers meet their holiday projections or at least come much closer to their forecast."
Despite the sudden interest by shoppers, retailers expect only a modest increase in retail sales. The National Retail Federation is keeping to its earlier prediction of a 4.5 percent rise. In 2003, sales rose 5.1 percent from the year before.
"I think it was a very typical, average Christmas where if you gave consumers deals and bargains they came in your store and bought, and if you didn't, you saw them walk to some other store," said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., firm that tracks shopping habits.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which reacted to lackluster sales early in the season with aggressive discounting, said yesterday that it now expects a 1 percent to 3 percent sales increase for December. Target Corp. expects a 3 percent to 5 percent sales jump. The sales comparisons are for stores open at least a year.
Beemer said performance the day after Christmas was the best he's seen in five years. He said shoppers were enticed to spend because of heavy discounting.
Many of the retailers felt they didn't have a choice but to cut prices after being faced with inventory levels 10 percent to 15 percent higher than they anticipated the weekend before Christmas, typically the busiest time of the season. Retail sales fell that weekend a combined 3.3 percent from a year earlier, according to ShopperTrak RCT.
"Retailers got more aggressive on Thursday and Friday, and I think the consumers responded," Beemer said.
Retailers might have also been helped by a shopping season that was two days longer than last year's. Many people had Christmas Eve off as a holiday and spent the day shopping.
Amazon.com Inc. said yesterday that it had its single busiest holiday season ever, setting a record of 2.8 million items sold in one day. The Seattle company did not specify which day was its busiest.
Retailers still have a few more days to woo shoppers. Last year, retailers saw the impact of the holiday season in January and February as people continued to cash in gift cards. Gift-card sales this year are expected to top last year's $45 billion.
"The week after Christmas or between Christmas and New Year's is an important week for retailers like us," said J.C. Penney spokesman Tim Lyons. "People are spending their gift cards. They're spending cash that they may have gotten as gifts. And they're returning items to stores, which gives us a chance to sell them something else.
"We still have a few more days to go in the month," he said. "We're holding out for a strong finish."