Stores seek sales in the wee hours
NEW YORK - The nation's stores are pulling all-nighters and deepening discounts in the final hours before Christmas, trying to draw in all the shoppers they can. As much as retailers do, however, analysts say the crowds appear to be lighter this week than a year ago - heightening worries for many merchants.
In Christmases past, the retail industry has depended on last-minute shoppers, along with those pulled in by 24-hour shopping, to help save the season. But this year, customers have been pulling back their spending.
A lot is at stake. The holiday shopping season accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual profits for many retailers.
"The question that we are really trying to answer is how bad was the season," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. He now expects that sales at established stores for November and December will be down 1.5 to 2 percent - making it the weakest holiday season since at least 1969.
Excluding Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is among the few bright spots, same-store sales are expected to fall from 6.5 to 7 percent. Same-store sales are sales at stores opened at least a year and are considered a key indicator of a retailer's health.
Meanwhile, ShopperTrak RCT Corp., which tracks more than 50,000 outlets, said total sales for the Saturday before Christmas were up 0.5 percent, while customer count dropped 17 percent compared with a year earlier.
But the holiday season was essentially over before the end of the Thanksgiving weekend for many merchants, as they were forced to offer marathon shopping hours and big discounts throughout November.
And if shoppers thought stores were practically giving away the merchandise before, deals are only expected to get better after Dec. 25. Merchants including AnnTaylor Loft were sending out e-mails to customers yesterday, promoting after-Christmas discounts that can be enjoyed now.
Despite such come-ons, many shoppers aren't in a rush. "I'm just kind of getting an idea. I'm just doing some comparison shopping," said Scott Meyer, a 57-year-old health and safety consultant, who was looking at bracelets at a Macy's near Chicago that was one of 13 Macy's stores that are staying open 24/7.
"I'll probably go to a local place and if I don't like what they have there, I'll come back here tomorrow night at 2 in the morning," he added.