Retailers Hope For Last-Minute Buying Surge

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

Time is almost up for procrastinating shoppers in search of last-minute Christmas gifts, and retailers hope that a surge in sales today and tomorrow will help pad what has been a largely tame holiday season.

Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, which studies consumer behavior, said customers have been "sleepwalking through the shopping season," fingers crossed that they could finish by tomorrow. For those procrastinators, the moment of truth is here.

"With the end of the holiday season in sight, they know that the true countdown has begun and the pressure is on to find the perfect gift," said Tracy Mullin, chief executive of the National Retail Federation, a trade group.

That present is increasingly likely to be a gift card. Sales this holiday are expected to reach $18.48 billion, up 6.6 percent from last year, according to the NRF. The booming industry is both a curse and a blessing to retailers: Stores can't count the sale of the card until it's redeemed -- which may be long after the holiday season -- but customers tend to spend more than the value of the card once they do.

Another confounding factor for the industry this year is the start of Hanukkah on Monday, which may draw sales out even longer after Christmas.

Still, retailers hope for solid gains this holiday season. There had been wide concern earlier in the season that high gasoline and home heating prices would keep spending down. But gas prices have come down since their record highs in September and many heating bills won't be due until next month.

Led by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., many retailers pushed aggressively to lure shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving, trying to build momentum and set the tone for the next few weeks. Sales at retail chain stores slowed early this month, but picked up last week, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Sales are expected to perk up even more this week, the group said.

Industry analysts predicted that stores would be inundated tomorrow morning and into early afternoon. Christmas Eve traffic is expected to be higher than usual because it falls on a Saturday, when most people are off work. But the crowds should thin later in the day as shoppers rush home for religious services and dinner with their families.

"Consumers are waiting even longer this holiday season to wrap up their shopping," Michael P. Niemira, the shopping center council's chief economist, said in a written statement. "This holiday season will certainly come down to the wire."

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