In Christmases past, the retail industry has depended on last-minute shoppers, along with those pulled in by 24-hour shopping options, to help save the season. But this year, customers worried about their jobs and retirement funds 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, and the earnings outlook is growing more dire every week.
"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 percent to 2 percent - making it the weakest holiday season since at least 1969, when the index began.
Excluding Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is among the few bright spots, same-store sales are expected to fall from 6.5 percent 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 measures traffic and total retail sales at more than 50,000 outlets, said Tuesday that total sales for the Saturday before Christmas were up 0.5 percent, while customer count dropped 17 percent compared with a year earlier. The Saturday before Christmas is expected to be the second-biggest day of the season.
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. Markdowns have only gotten deeper since then.
And if shoppers thought stores were practically giving away the merchandise before, deals are only expected to get better after Dec. 25, particularly on items such as outerwear. Merchants including AnnTaylor Loft were already sending out e-mails to customers Tuesday, promoting after-Christmas discounts that can be enjoyed now.
Despite such come-ons, many shoppers aren't in a big 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 open overnight - one of 13 Macy's stores that are staying open 24/7 until Christmas Eve.
"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.
Later Tuesday, Bobby Rivers of Warrenton, N.C., was shopping with his two daughters at Triangle Town Center in Raleigh.
"We choose one day to do Christmas shopping every year, and today happens to be the day," he said. The 50-year-old public correction officer said he had a separate savings account set up for Christmas shopping. Still, he said he's been cautious. He pointed to his Belk shopping bag, which held a single pair of jeans.
"I'm more conservative this year," he said while waiting for his daughters to finish shopping at a clothing store. "I'm not buying a lot of elaborate things."
Retailers have a lot riding on the last few days before Christmas. Last year, the last five full shopping days - Dec. 19 through Dec. 23 - accounted for approximately 17 percent of holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak. The first week after Christmas accounts for about 15 percent of total holiday sales, according to Niemira.
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group Inc., and C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, both noted that crowds were thinner this week than last year. Still, they believe that retailers offering the marathon hours in the season's finale makes sense since the extra labor costs are minimal compared with the goodwill that stores enjoy by offering a convenience to time-starved shoppers.
Ed Schmults, chief executive of toy retailer FAO Schwarz, said that the company's two main locations in Manhattan and in Las Vegas are staying open Christmas Day for the second year in a row.
"We get a lot of appreciation from our customers," he said.
Schmults reported that business has been stronger in the final days of the season compared with the same time last year. But he acknowledged that the surge won't be enough to offset a drop in overall holiday sales, which have been tracking below last year since late October.
What worries Schmults and others is January and beyond. One factor that stores may not be able to count on is the post-Christmas shopping boost, which had traditionally been spurred by shoppers returning to the malls to redeem their gift cards on discounted and regular-price merchandise. But gift card sales have been disappointing this year as shoppers find they get better value by buying discounted merchandise. Consumers are also fearful of buying gift cards from retailers that may go bankrupt.
Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at mall operator Taubman Centers Inc., said gift card sales are below last year. Beemer estimates that they are about 30 percent below a year ago.
Such woes are only good news for shoppers. Dan de Grandpre, editor-in-chief of dealnews.com, which tracks discounts both online and at regular stores, said he is still seeing stores inundated with merchandise. That means that shoppers will have a lot of choices among the piles of deeply discounted items after Christmas.
He's hoping to take advantage of the post-Dec. 25 discounts himself by nabbing a high-quality cashmere scarf for at least half off - or he'll wait until it is.
AP Writer Barbara Rodriguez in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.
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