Retailers hope shoppers pick up the pace
Corilyn Shropshire and Erin Chan Ding/Chicago Tribune
Debbie Scarlati experienced a bit of anxiety when she realized that Christmas Day was just 11 days away.
“Truly, I was a whole week off,” she said, holding three bags at Oakbrook Center on Friday. “I had a little bit of a panic attack, and now, I’m done.”
The Downers Grove mom planned to cut her holiday spending this year but had trouble reining in herself.
“I really should be spending less,” she said, “but I have this real fault that if I see it, and sometimes because you’re under the gun and you have to get it, you just get it. You just buy it.”
Scarlati’s late start and weakness for shopping is what stores are counting on. Sales over Black Friday weekend soared to a record $59.1 billion, but they tapered off in the following weeks.
The number of shoppers and sales in stores during the first week of December lagged last year’s, according to ShopperTrak. Consumers postponed their purchases and mild temperatures slowed sales of cold-weather gear.
Now, with 10 days to Christmas, businesses must get shoppers like Scarlati to spend.
On Friday, Wal-Mart took the rare step of slashing prices on some iPads and the latest iPhones. Kohl’s has promised to pick up the tab for one shopper a day.
This weekend, Sears is rolling out another round of door-buster sales. And next weekend — just days before Christmas — Macy’s will stay open for 48 hours straight and Toys R Us for 88 hours.
Experts expect prices to fall even further as Christmas approaches. Retailers, desperate to unload inventory, will offer steep percentage discounts. “This year, 40 percent is standard fare,” said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail.
Discounts are likely to creep to 50 percent, she said, in part due to fierce competition with online merchants.
The sales not only appeal to frugal shoppers, but to people who probably shouldn’t still be shopping at all. “Promotions at this late in the game are geared to get people to spend more than they intended,” said Tom Compernolle, principal in Deloitte’s retail practice.
Stores are also trying fancy promotions to gain shoppers’ attention. Clothing store Banana Republic has touted airline tickets and Fiat car giveaways in an effort to grab market share.
Other big-name retailers such as Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart have engaged in price-matching wars. “No retailer wants to be outflanked, and when they see a competitor doing something, they want to match it,” Compernolle said.
Retailers have plenty of people to win over. Nearly a fifth of consumers have yet to start holiday shopping, while another fifth plan to drop into stores again after taking a break, research firm NPD Group estimated.
With Christmas on a Tuesday, this year’s shopping season has five weekends, not the typical four. There are two left.
“We might see the rush this weekend,” said Suzanne Cook-Beres, Oakbrook Center’s marketing manager.
This year, the mall is trying social media to reel in customers. People who take photos and post them on photo-sharing site Instagram are eligible to win a $20 gift card. “We looked at this to be a great opportunity to say … what will this do?” Cook-Beres said. To beat last week’s lull, Oakbrook promised shoppers who spent $250 or more a $20 mall gift card that can be used at most stores.
At Northbrook Court, mall executives are focusing on entertainment, offering “pet night” on Monday evenings and a day at the “elf academy” for children, marketing manager Stacy Kolios said.
The question is whether shoppers will give in to special perks and lower prices.
Compernolle predicts they will, despite the looming “fiscal cliff,” because “consumer confidence has climbed since September,” he said.
But retail consultant Jeff Green isn’t convinced.
Discounts will likely draw shoppers, but promotions, like Kohl’s plan to pick up one shopper’s tab every day until Christmas Eve, are a “little obscure for most people,” Green said.
“If you’re a power shopper you’ll care, but the general public probably won’t,” he said.