Dec 20, 2008

Business - Retailers hope for crowds in final holiday push

Alexandria Sage

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Retailers prepared to open their doors early on Saturday in a final, frenzied push to save holiday sales, with the added disruption of a winter storm hitting the country's Midwest and Northeast.

Foul weather kept many shoppers close to home on Friday, with freezing rain and snow expected for several regions through the weekend.

The storm hits at the worst possible time for U.S. store chains, which are trying to salvage the critical holiday shopping season and lure recession-struck consumers with last-minute deals before Christmas next week.

Many shoppers have said they are giving fewer gifts and looking only for marked-down merchandise, grim news for retailers who may see their weakest holiday season since the early 1990s.

Stacy Maites stopped in the snow to look at the window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship New York store on Friday. She is worried about her job at a technology company and has whittled down her annual holiday party to 20 people.

"It's minimal and only when I can find stuff on sale," she said of her gift-buying this year.

The National Retail Federation predicted on Friday that two-thirds of Americans still had holiday shopping left to do, while 44.5 million consumers still had not even begun.

"With so much shopping left to do, the weekend before Christmas will be one of the most important periods of the year for retailers," said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin.

Stores like Macy's Inc and J.C. Penney Co Inc were primed to greet shoppers starting at 6 a.m. after staying open until midnight on Friday.

"It's our last one day sale before Christmas" announced Macy's in a full-page ad that ran in many U.S. newspapers, accompanied by a $10 coupon. The department store chain even kept its doors open 24 hours at some East Coast locations.

Gap Inc's Old Navy chain advertised $6 deals on items from scarves to slippers, while Toys "R" Us said certain toys would be 50 percent off.


"Super Saturday" -- the Saturday before Christmas that represents the final major day of holiday shopping -- usually ranks just behind "Black Friday" as the single-largest holiday sales day. Black Friday fell on November 28 this year, the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.

This year, Saturday could be busier than expected, if storm conditions ease up. More severe weather was forecast for Sunday.

"You'll see a mad scramble... in the New York region because it's basically the only day we have," said Scott Bernhardt, chief operating officer for weather tracking firm Planalytics. "Once you shovel out, go to the mall because another one is coming on Sunday."

Still, fewer shoppers in stores on Friday and Sunday could be a serious blow to store chains, who may be forced to further mark down merchandise. Online stores like Inc may benefit as consumers can shop from home and still have gifts delivered by Christmas.

The weekend before Christmas typically accounts for some 11.5 percent of holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak, which monitors shoppers at more than 50,000 retail locations.

Last year, Super Saturday totaled $8.7 billion in retail sales of everything from apparel to sporting goods and books, up 1 percent from the same day in 2006.

While most U.S. stores have seen months of dismal sales results, many are willing to sacrifice their profit margins by offering steep discounts just to make sure they will not be left with excess inventory come January.

(Additional reporting by Nicole Maestri in New York; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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