NEW YORK -- Shoppers headed to malls and stores to grab discounted coats, cashmere sweaters, and other items yesterday as merchants slashed prices even deeper in hopes of squeezing more sales out of what's winding up to be an unimpressive holiday season.
After struggling with disappointing sales throughout the holiday season, retailers and mall operators like J.C. Penney Co. and Taubman Centers Inc. reported a pickup last week. Now, merchants are focusing on the week after Christmas, relying on shoppers to do more buying -- and less returning -- to meet their modest sales goals.
With gift cards increasingly popular, plenty of stores were encouraging consumers in advertising yesterday to spend them immediately. Gift cards are recorded as sales only when they are redeemed.
The National Retail Federation is sticking with its forecast of a 4.5 percent gain in total sales for November and December, excluding restaurant and auto sales.
Bright spots have been online shopping, with sales at the high end of projections, and luxury stores, which have had robust sales.
In New York yesterday, shoppers waiting for Macy's to open were hunting for everything from clothes to discounted holiday items as the store offered savings of as much as 75 percent. But Raymond Freeman, from Manhattan, said he didn't have anything specific in mind. He was getting his Christmas shopping done.
"I always wait until after [Christmas] to do shopping. You get better deals," he said.
Merchants are finding themselves in the same position they were in last year, relying on the final days before and post-holiday sales to save the season. Last year, a late spending surge gave struggling retailers a better-than-expected holiday season, delivering solid gains over the year-earlier period. In 2002, however, the last-minute boost before and after Christmas was not sufficient to overcome December's earlier weakness.
The mid-to low-price stores -- whose customers are more vulnerable to the economy's woes and had pushed hard with discounts -- further sweetened the deals on the day after Christmas, which was the third-busiest day of the holiday shopping season last year.
The full picture for the holiday shopping season won't be known until Jan. 6, when retailers report December sales figures.