Retailers adapt to new shopping attitudes as clock ticks

Jacqueline Castellanos of Silver Spring does some last-minute Christmas shopping Wednesday at Old Navy at Wheaton Mall with her infant daughter Samantha.
Jacqueline Castellanos of Silver Spring does some last-minute Christmas shopping Wednesday at Old Navy at Wheaton Mall with her infant daughter Samantha. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes and Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Retailers are wrapping up a roller-coaster holiday season Thursday as a last-minute surge of shoppers storms stores before they go dark for Christmas.

Old Navy stores have stayed open until midnight every day since Sunday in the Washington area and have sold so many sweaters that stores had to start putting out spring merchandise, district manager Lauren Esveld said. Macy's at Tysons Corner has been ringing up sales 24 hours a day. Wal-Mart released new shipments of Zhu Zhu Pets -- the hot holiday hamster -- at 7 a.m. each weekday.

For 8-year-old Jenny Mei, the countdown to Christmas is her last hope for convincing her mother that she needs a Nintendo DSi gaming system under the tree. Jenny and her sister, Yannie, 11, wrote their wish lists weeks ago and stuck them on the fridge so their mom couldn't miss them. On Wednesday, they sat in the food court at the Westfield Wheaton mall and estimated their chances of success.

"Mine is probably zero percent," Jenny said with a sigh. "Because it's expensive."

Retailers have spent much of the holiday season adapting to the significant changes in consumer behavior that the recession has wrought. Many shoppers reported making trade-offs -- for instance, some women are purchasing more shoes but opting to "shop in their closets" for old dresses and outfits instead of buying new ones. Or consumers are choosing practical gifts such as washers and dryers over splurging on winter vacations in the Bahamas.

Change in appeal

For retailers, the shift in spending patterns means they're emphasizing discounts and beckoning shoppers with offers of charitable donations, extended hours and appeals describing how the merchandise can make shoppers' lives better.

Wal-Mart, the nation's No. 1 retailer, is running a TV ad narrated by a mother who is pleased that her teenage son is putting off his friends to spend time playing on a Wii with his little sister. Target is matching its competitors' prices if shoppers can document a better deal elsewhere. And Best Buy has introduced many new items priced below $50.

Geoff Armes, 40, an Army platoon sergeant who lives in Silver Spring, said he bought an expensive digital camera last year just to have the latest technology. But on a recent trip to a Best Buy in Alexandria, he said he was considering a $40 device to link a second TV to his cable service rather than a $300 wireless connection with many more options. "I'm buying things I need instead of want," he said.

Retailers are encouraged by a 1.3 percent increase in sales in November, though some analysts project that overall holiday sales will be down for the second straight year.

"The recession was the tipping point for people to say, 'Enough is enough. Our lives are about more than this stuff' " in the stores, said Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore, which studies consumer behavior. In October, 51 percent of 1,000 consumers he surveyed around the nation indicated they planned to invest more time this year with family and charitable causes than last year.

Over the past year, Blinkoff said, consumers have gone through a metamorphosis he compares to the stages of grief: First, they put consumption on hold. Then, they reset their priorities and reordered their attitudes about credit and living above their means. Now, they're back in the market and acting on their new attitudes.

Consumers are telling themselves, Blinkoff said, " 'We're shopping, but we're going to make sure we shop right. We're going to spend less. We're going to spend more time with family and more time volunteering.' "

The days of "shop till you drop" and "retail therapy" appear to be waning.

"We know customers are much more in the driver's seat than they've ever been," said Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears.

Promoting charity

Some retailers are making a bid for altruistic shoppers by encouraging them to participate in promotions aimed at raising money for charity. GE said it will donate 2 percent of sales on such big-ticket items as refrigerators and dryers from its online store to United Way. And Macy's said it is donating $1 to the Make-a-Wish Foundation for every letter it receives for Santa Claus.

In 2008, retailers' holiday sales fell 3.4 percent, the largest decline in 40 years of recordkeeping. This holiday season, stores hoped consumers would come out of their cocoons as they increase purchases of items such as women's shoes, building materials and appliances. Best Buy said in its earnings report last week that appliance sales rose 10 percent in the three-month period ended Nov. 28, compared with a 21 percent decline during the same period a year ago.

"This is the first tangible turn we're seeing in the home market," said Craig R. Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consulting firm in New Canaan, Conn.

The turn could be short-lived. Kevin O'Dell, 54, of Wheaton packed all of his holiday shopping into three whirlwind days this week at Westfield Montgomery mall, Sports Authority, Borders and REI.

Typically, he doesn't wait this long to get started, he said. But finances were tighter, work was busier and the weather was snowier this year. On Wednesday, he made a quick stop at Old Navy at Wheaton Mall to pick up tank tops and day-glo socks for his two daughters, ages 19 and 21.

"They're a can't-miss item," he said, holding up the neon orange and green fuzzy socks. "They're not a fashion item."

All O'Dell needed was 20 more minutes, and he would be done.


Well, almost. "I gotta wrap 'em," he said.

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