Stores Try to Lure Customers in Year's Final Week

Discounts brought Stephanie Yun of the District out to White Flint by 7:45 a.m. yesterday.
Discounts brought Stephanie Yun of the District out to White Flint by 7:45 a.m. yesterday. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Retailers were pulling out all the stops yesterday to boost holiday sales before the year ends as shoppers streamed back into the malls to search for deep discounts and try out gift cards loaded with cash.

The week after Christmas has the potential to be especially big this year thanks to the triple whammy of post-holiday discounts, the boom in popularity of gift cards and the start of Hanukkah on Sunday night.

Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, said that those factors created "the equivalent of retail's perfect storm." This week traditionally accounts for about 10 percent to 15 percent of total holiday sales, he said. That means a strong week could tip the scales for retailers.

"That's just enough to turn a good holiday season into a great one," Krugman said.

Though retailers are not expected to release December sales figures until next week, many industry experts predicted that industry-wide growth this year would be moderate to strong. The NRF has been among the most bullish, forecasting sales growth of 6 percent, to $439.53 billion. Other groups, like the International Council of Shopping Centers, expect a more modest increase of 3 percent to 3.5 percent.

At White Flint in North Bethesda yesterday, sales signs hung in nearly every store window. Pottery Barn was having its "winter sale," Gap was touting its "end of season sale" and trendy apparel store H&M was boasting discounts as high as 70 percent.

"The week after Christmas is a big part of our December," said Bert Oser, owner of the mall store Bertram's Inkwell, which specializes in high-end pens.

A large sale sign advertising price cuts of 30 to 50 percent was propped against a cabinet in the back of the store. Oser said he planned to put the sign outside of his store later in the day but that many of his customers already knew that this week meant big sales.

"With time, people have learned to just wait," he said.

Oser said he wants to clear out inventory this month to make room for next year's stock. He has marked down several brands and styles of pens that are being phased out. Oser said he doesn't expect his season to end until the middle of January and many of the gift certificates he sold before Christmas may not be redeemed until after that.

The quandary has become a serious one for many retailers as sales of gift cards have grown over the past few years. The NRF predicts that this season, consumers will spend nearly 16 percent of their holiday budget on gift cards, pumping up sales 6.6 percent, to $18.48 billion. The only problem is that retailers can't count those sales until the cards are actually redeemed.

Thirteen-year-old Brittnie Baughman of Silver Spring and her sister, Danielle, 11, both got $50 gift cards to Target and $25 American Express gift cards.

"That's like the big thing for them now," said their mother, Kelly. "They can finally go shopping for themselves and not ask mom for money."

According to data from accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP compiled by Giftcertificates.com, a consulting group, about 54 percent of teenagers redeemed their cards the week after Christmas last year, compared with about 35 percent of adults. By the end of January, 61 percent of adults had cashed in their cards. Some may never be redeemed.

The Baughman sisters hadn't decided what they would spend their gift cards on. The sisters were pretty well satiated -- both sat on a bench at White Flint yesterday morning dressed entirely in clothes from Aeropostale, their favorite store, with Brittnie listening to Lindsay Lohan sing "Confessions of a Broken Heart" on her new iPod Nano.

"I think it's more peaceful" the week after Christmas, Brittnie said, one ear still glued to her headphones. "People have gotten everything they wanted. People are tired of the mall."

The girls' parents were unwinding at Roxan Day Spa across the hall after hosting 15 people at their house for Christmas: Kelly with a manicure and Randy with a pedicure.

"Now we're ready to spend," Randy said as he relaxed with his feet in a tub of sudsy water.

Stephanie Yun, however, was ready to go home and take a nap by mid-morning yesterday.

The 30-year-old from the District had arrived at White Flint at 7:45 a.m. to take advantage of the day's sales: a calendar that was half-off, coupons to Lord & Taylor, a Coach purse discounted 20 percent. She said she also stocked up on cashmere sweaters for her mother and boyfriend -- and maybe one or two for herself.

"I feel less guilty," she said, explaining her rationalization for the purchases. "Here, Mom, do you want this one? I'll take these two."

She said she had a few returns to make. One of her grandmothers didn't like the Tommy Hilfiger purse she had picked out for her, and her other grandmother said she had no use for the black evening bag that Yun gave her. ("Apparently, she doesn't go out anymore," she said.)

But Yun said she had not received any gifts that she needed to return.

"Maybe just the rest of my family is really picky," she said.


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