On Christmas Eve, frantic shoppers still find it fun

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 9:37 PM

On Christmas Eve, you could no longer order the latest Kindle from Amazon.com or take advantage of rivals' free-shipping offers. And it was too late to ask Santa for something particular. He was already in his sleigh, galloping across Europe.

So, by Friday afternoon, tens of thousands of last-minute shoppers had only the malls and shops around the Washington region to find the perfect DVD, sweater, book, video game or gadget to pick up and slide, just in time, under the Christmas tree.

"I do most of my shopping online," said Kari Gaskins, a pharmaceutical sales representative who lives in Prince George's County, while shopping at the Fashion Centre mall at Pentagon City. "But not all of my shopping. I think coming here with all of the people puts you in the spirit of Christmas, with all of the hustle and bustle."

Forecasters couldn't say definitively whether there would be a white Christmas. But it was clear that for the nation's retailers, after two difficult years in economic recession, this might be a bit greener holiday.

The National Retail Federation, a trade group, estimated that holiday spending this year would jump 3.3 percent, more than its original prediction of 2.3 percent.

A lot of that action came Friday, when 31.1 million consumers - more than 15 percent of Americans - planned to do last-minute shopping, according to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs.

"I'm spending more this year," said Hiwot Guebre, a research coordinator at a local university who lives in Arlington County. Picking up some Wii video games for her nieces and nephews, she said she felt more comfortable spending on family.

In anticipation of the final rush, many chains launched 11th-hour promotions. Victoria's Secret announced its popular semi-annual sale. Toys R Us, Macy's and Old Navy all planned to keep their doors open 24 hours through Christmas Eve. Toys R Us was planning to keep many of its stores open until 10 p.m. Friday, an hour later than last year.

"Usually at this time, everything is on sale. So I go shopping," said Chung Ming, a taxi driver who lives in the District and picked up a pasta cooker and collection of pans at Macy's in downtown Washington.

Many retailers have touted gift cards to round out Christmas stockings. In fact, gift cards stood to eclipse clothing as the most popular gift this season. Clothing took up the second spot, followed by toys and games; music and videos; money; and gadgets.

All that shopping takes time. An analysis by Consumer Reports shows shoppers are expected to spend an average of 15 hours looking for gifts during the holiday. They'll spend 31/2 more hours waiting to check out.

Perhaps playing to a stereotype, the number of men double that of women who would be doing last-minute shopping, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers survey. And younger people were more likely to have put off shopping until the final minutes.

While it was too late to order physical goods from online retailers in time for Christmas, the growth of electronic media - digital songs, movies, apps and video games - offered another option: electronic files as gifts.

Retail e-commerce has grown this season, up 12 percent, reaching $28.36 billion, according to tracking company ComScore. The increase has been driven at least in part by new free-shipping offers from a number of major retailers, most notably Wal-Mart.

At Best Buy on South Hayes Street in Arlington, Dickerns Israel, a software architect, urged his 10-year-old son, Zac, to swing his leg harder while playing a soccer game on the motion-detecting console from Microsoft Kinect, one of this season's popular gifts.

Israel's wife had already done much of the gift shopping for the season, so Israel and Zac decided to go out for a little father-son bonding.

"We like to do this together," Israel said. "We get some gifts for his mom," such as perfume from Nordstrom. "I'm a late shopper because of my busy schedule."

In addition to Kinect, products exciting consumers this season include the first batch of 3-D televisions and Apple's iPad, according to retailers. Music by Katy Perry and DVDs of the movie "Inception" were also popular.

For kids, parents were buying Scrabble Flash, a way to introduce the legendary word game to children 8 and older, and PaperJamz toy electronic guitars.

In the apparel category, men were picking up '80s watches and fluffy robes, and women liked messenger bags and hoodies. And the color of the season: gray.

The wave of Christmas Eve shopping is closing out what has been a better season overall for retailers.

The New England Consulting Group reported that a longer holiday shopping season that stretched from Halloween to the Super Bowl would help retailers - as would an increase in pop-up retail stores and the popularity of higher-priced items.

Government data released Thursday showed that consumer spending is continuing to rise as people reduce their savings. The savings rate is now at 5.3 percent, far lower than the 8.2 percent rate in May 2009, in the heart of the recession - a sign of improving consumer confidence.

Staff writer Ylan Q. Mui contributed to this report.

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