U.S. stores ready for last-min. shoppers

Published 9:40 am Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Super Saturday — the last Saturday before Christmas and usually ranked as the biggest or second-biggest sales day of the year — got walloped by a big East Coast snow storm that kept many shoppers at home.

Merchants in the Northeast are now left to hope for an even bigger-than-usual last-minute spending surge from shoppers who, according to several surveys, are well behind on their holiday purchases compared to previous years.

Several stores, including Target Corp. and Toys R Us, announced earlier this week they will extend their hours to accommodate shoppers in the final days before Christmas. But analysts say there are no signs stores have begun a wave of discounting to make up for the Saturday shortfall.

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Research firm ShopperTrak reported Tuesday that Super Saturday sales dropped 12.6 percent from a year ago, while foot traffic fell 12.4 percent, as a winter storm lashed the East Coast. That’s on top of a 12.4 percent sales decline and a 17 percent drop in foot traffic on Super Saturday in 2008 compared with the prior year. The firm, based in Chicago, tracks total retail sales at more than 50,000 outlets.

ShopperTrak reported that Saturday’s sales totaled $6.9 billion, compared with $7.9 billion last year and $8.7 billion in 2007. For the full weekend, sales slipped 2.1 percent to $18.8 billion compared with a year ago.

“Mother Nature was very unkind to retailers on Saturday,” Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, said in a statement. He added that the sales decline was the steepest for the Saturday before Christmas since it started reporting holiday sales figures in 2002.

Martin had originally predicted that Super Saturday would be retailers’ second-most important day behind Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, but after analyzing the data, he said he thinks that won’t be the case.

He said he’s still sticking to his prediction for a 1.6 percent sales gain for the overall holiday period, forecasting shoppers will be out in full force in the final days before Christmas.

For the week ended Saturday, sales slipped 1.2 percent compared with the year-ago period, but showed a 20 percent increase compared with the previous week.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs index reported Tuesday that for the week ended Saturday, sales rose just 0.6 percent compared with the previous week.

Compared with the same week last year, the index rose 0.4 percent. A week earlier, that figure was up 2.4 percent.

The measurement is based on sales at stores open at least a year, considered a key indicator of retailer’s health.

Super Saturday turned into a “super disappointment” for retailers, said Michael Niemira, ICSC’s chief economist. According to an ICSC survey, almost 71 percent of customers polled completed their holiday shopping through Sunday, almost 10 percentage points behind the same point a year ago, he said.

In the Northeast, that number was 65 percent, he said. Niemira said he’s not changing his forecast for sales at stores opened at least a year to be up 1 percent for the holiday period. He predicts the catch-up will be “intense” as shoppers complete their holiday gift buying this week.

Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group, said that shoppers are serious this week.

“This is crunch time,” said Cohen, who has been surveying malls on Long Island.

He noted that bricks-and-mortar stores that also have online businesses were able to cushion the blow from the snow storm as shoppers kept spending online. Eager to win business from snowed-in easterners, retail Web sites including Macys.com and JCPenney.com offered free express shipping this past Sunday.

“I haven’t seen any retailers panicking,” Cohen said, noting that he has seen the same level of discounts this week as this past weekend.

Marlene Cabrare, 29, from the Bronx, who was laid off from her job as a paralegal last year, didn’t go shopping this weekend because of the weather.

“I couldn’t get around” she said. She was buying “last minute things” Monday at Manhattan Mall in New York for her brother, including a sweater and a thermos.

“I’m almost done,” she said.