NEW YORK -- The holiday retail landscape is changing, as consumers shift more of their holiday buying than ever before to the days after Christmas.
''The whole equation has been shaken up," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. ''Consumers feel so much more in control. They have all the power and they are wielding that power."
The enormous popularity of gift cards and the growing temptation to wait for better sales after Dec. 25 is taking the panic out of holiday buying, turning procrastination into a strategy for snaring bargains. But that approach is stressing many retailers, forcing them to hustle fresh wares onto their floors for round two of the season.
Stores made a big effort to jump-start the holiday season with advertising campaigns launched a few weeks earlier than usual. But after a solid start to the holiday season, consumers stayed away from the malls until the final days before Christmas. That had retailers pinning more hopes on the post-Christmas season.
Higher energy costs have added to consumers' burdens, even though unemployment is relatively low and personal incomes have risen. And a quirky calendar also played a role -- Hanukkah was late, and there was an extra shopping day between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Still, Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, said he believes this holiday season revealed a fundamental change of shoppers lacking urgency to buy.
''The economics don't necessarily suggest a major change in consumer spending, so I am not clear what it is," said Niemira, noting that gasoline prices have fallen from their recent highs. ''The traffic at the malls didn't seem to be that strong. I think the retailer has to figure out how to get the customer to buy early."
Niemira still believes that retailers will meet modest sales forecasts for a 3 to 3.5 percent increase for November-December, based on strong sales last week. The forecast is based on same-store sales or sales at stores opened at least a year.
Actual results from the International Council of Shopping Centers for last week will be released on today.
Scott Krugman, a spokesman at the National Retail Federation, is sticking by the association's retail sales forecast for a 6 percent gain.
Several mall operators such as Taubman Centers Inc., which operates or owns 23 malls in 11 states, and Santa Monica, Calif.-based Macerich Co., which operates 80 malls nationwide, reported that traffic so far has been strong this week.
David J. Contis, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Macerich, said robust sales during the postholiday season should help recoup the shortfall earlier in the season.
''The trend of post-Christmas shopping for thyself has become more accentuated, and retailers have to adjust to it," he said.