Justine Griffin/Sarasota Herald-Tribune—While retail stores were busy with the many bargain hunters looking for a last minute deal before the holiday this past weekend, Sarasota shoppers Beth McCullagh and Melissa Tomasso were relaxing at home, their shopping already done for the season.
McCullagh, a dedicated Black Friday shopper who lives with her family in Lakewood Ranch, spent a few days in stores after Black Friday, but wrapped up most of her shopping online. Tomasso, who waited until December to begin shopping for her family who live in Sarasota, shopped online and in stores, but grabbed everything on her list before jetting to New York for a short getaway before Wednesday.
As of Dec. 9, the average American holiday shopper had completed only half of their gift shopping for friends and family, which is slightly less than how much shoppers had completed by that time last year, according to the National Retail Federation. That fact boded well for store chains as they geared up for Super Saturday and the last weekend before Christmas, where retailers offer a final round of marked-down prices in a last-minute effort to purge inventories before the end of the holiday season.
Early reports show that shopping traffic was down on Friday and Super Saturday, which falls in line with a disappointing turnout for Black Friday sales, too. Even though chain stores opened earlier than ever on Thanksgiving this year, retailers saw a decline in consumer spending for the first time in four years, according to Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail analyst.
Green predicts that holiday sales will be relatively flat compared to last year due to these factors.
“Retailers will see a pretty good November but not as good December,” he said. “They started marketing so early this year and with Hanukkah landing before Black Friday, I don’t see a lot of shoppers waiting until the end this year.”
Store chains and malls were open late too as the holidays near — Toys R Us stores will stay open for 87 hours straight, beginning Dec. 21 and will close at the end of Christmas Eve. Best Buy stores were open from 7 a.m. to midnight Friday through Monday.
Traffic at retail plazas and malls was down by 3.1 percent during the week of Dec. 16-22 compared to the same time last year, according to the latest data available from ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based foot traffic analyzing firm. Brick-and-mortar traffic decreased by 21.2 percent compared to the same time last year.
“What’s interesting this year is that shoppers are visiting fewer stores when they do decide to go out and shop,” said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak. “That’s thanks in large part to the virtual way of window shopping nowadays. Shoppers are researching merchandise online from work, at home, on their commute. So when they go to stores, they’re already halfway through the decision-making process.”
Tomasso shopped for her family and friends at Sarasota-area stores during December. Her guide was a handwritten list detailing certain items relating to specific family members. She bought some items online on Cyber Monday, but still made big purchases in stores.
“I had all my shopping done but realized I forgot one thing, so I just did it online,” Tomasso said. “Every time I went into a store I already knew what I wanted to get before walking in. I did all my research online, which really isn’t like me. But I had to be quick this year.”
The age of the “prepared shopper” is troublesome for retailers, who rely on impulse buys during busy shopping days like Black Friday or Super Saturday. Doorbuster deals are meant to draw shoppers in, but make retailers very little money, Green said. Holiday purchases make up nearly 40 percent of some chain stores annual sales.
“The biggest question is how will this affect the retailer. If there’s not a lot of cross shopping then sales will be disappointing,” Green said.
In-store retail traffic also fell last week by 19.9 percent, Shoppertrak data shows. But sales were up, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, which reported that sales increased by 4.8 percent for the week ending Dec. 14. Sales grew by 2 percent on a year-over-year basis.
“There remains a bit of sluggishness in holiday sales and promotional activity has been stepped up over the last week. Since consumers are down to the wire with Christmas Day, they will need to step up their gift buying even more this coming week,” said Michael Niemira, vice president of research and chief economist for ICSC.
But the online sector continues to be strong around the holidays. More people are shopping online than ever before, retail reports say. About half of shoppers said they plan to do the last half of their shopping online, which is the highest percent in the history of the NRF’s survey.
McCullagh said she finished a lot of her shopping online after Black Friday. Her two children came up with Christmas lists after Black Friday this year. Leland, 15, cut out photos of gifts she wanted and ranked them in a scrapbook. Spencer, 11, built a Microsoft Powerpoint presentation to list the items he wanted.
“I was surprised by how much shopping I did online, but I had no choice really, because what they wanted wasn’t sold in stores here,” McCullagh said. “It’s unbelievable how easy it is to shop online. Everything should be like this.”
She purchased clothes from retailers like Vineyard Vines, which does not have a local store.
“It comes as no surprise that Americans are eager to shop online as busy schedules and a shift in the calendar have made the convenience offered by retailers’ mobile apps and websites even more attractive this year,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the NRF.
“Recognizing the importance of providing stellar customer experiences for their shoppers, retailers will use every opportunity to promote their products through all their channels at very competitive prices, including exclusive shipping offers and in-store events.”
With all the gifts wrapped and waiting under the tree, Tomasso and McCullagh are looking forward to an easy- going holiday with their families. That is, until the bills come after the first of the year.