Bargain-hungry Americans will need to go on a post-Christmas spending binge to salvage this holiday shopping season.
They got a good start in the Columbia area during day-after-Christmas shopping Wednesday, packing malls and big box stores after the weather provided a gloomy start to the day.
Despite the huge discounts and other incentives that stores offered leading up to Christmas, U.S. holiday sales so far this year have been the weakest since 2008, when the nation was in a deep recession.
So stores now are depending on the days after Christmas to make up lost ground: The final week of December can account for about 15 percent of the month’s sales, and the day after Christmas is typically one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
Toni Little was in Best Buy in Lexington on Wednesday with her sons, Josh, 11, and Tyler, 9, who were looking to spend gift cards from relatives. Josh was shopping for a protective case for his new iPad mini – one of the hottest gifts of the holiday season.
Little had made some returns earlier in the day at a packed Columbiana Centre. Instead of trying to cross a bustling Harbison Boulevard to go the Best Buy there, she drove all the way back to Lexington, hoping it wouldn’t be as crowded.
She was out of luck.
Store manager Mechelle Carey had “all hands on deck” to deal with the large crowds at the Lexington Best Buy.
“It’s the other ‘day after,’” she said, referencing Black Friday shopping crowds on the day after Thanksgiving.
In addition to those looking to spend gift cards, shoppers also were searching for accessories to go with their new toys. Others were hunting for bargains.
Stacey Ross, 26, of Lexington was helping her boyfriend Michael McCutcheon, 24, look for a memory card for his the GoPro camera she got him for filming his dirt bike races.
“We can’t play with it without that card,” she said.
Cherie Evans-Sowers was looking for a deal on a camera. She decided after Black Friday shopping that she wanted a camera for Christmas so she and her husband waited until the day after to look for deals.
“I didn’t want to go out today,” she said, because of the gloomy weather. “But my husband said today was the day” to find deals.
Stores, which don’t typically talk about their plans for sales and other promotions during the season, are known for offering discounts of up to 70 percent after the holiday. This year, they’re hoping to lure more bargain hunters like Evans-Sowers who held off shopping because they wanted to get the best deals of the season.
Todd & Moore on Huger Street had a 10 percent off storewide sale Wednesday, including previously marked down merchandise, manager Craig Mucci said.
That did little to draw shoppers early Wednesday as rain soaked the area, but traffic started picking up later, he said.
He expects store sales to end the year on par with last year. After a slow start to the Christmas sales season, shopping picked up significantly the week before the holiday, he said.
The after-Christmas shopping rush illustrates just how important holiday sales are. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity and many retailers can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue during the two-month holiday shopping period at the end of the year.
So far, holiday sales of electronics, clothing, jewelry and home goods in the two months before Christmas increased 0.7 percent compared with last year, according to the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse report that was released Tuesday. SpendingPulse, which tracks spending, said that’s the weakest holiday performance since 2008, when sales dropped sharply, although the company did not know by how much.
The SpendingPulse data, which captures sales from Oct. 28 through Dec. 24 across all payment methods, is the first major snapshot of holiday retail sales. A clearer picture will emerge next week as retailers such as Macy’s and Target report monthly sales.
Analysts blamed bad weather for putting a damper on December shopping. In late October, Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, which account for 24 percent of U.S. retail sales. That, coupled with the bustle of the presidential election, hurt sales during the first half of November.
Shopping picked up in the second half of November, but then the threat of the country falling off a “fiscal cliff” gained strength, throwing consumers off track once again. Lawmakers have yet to reach a deal that would prevent tax increases and government spending cuts set to take effect at the beginning of 2013. If the cuts and tax hikes kick in and stay in place for months, the Congressional Budget Office says the nation could fall back into recession.
The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, said Wednesday that it’s sticking to its forecast for total sales for November and December to be up 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion this year. That’s more than a percentage point lower than the growth in each of the past two years, and the smallest increase since 2009 when sales were up just 0.3 percent.
Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the group, noted that the trade group’s definition of holiday sales not only includes clothes and electronics, but also food and building supplies.
“Stores have a big week ahead, and it’s still too early to know how the holiday season fared at this point,” she said.
Staff writer Kristy Eppley Rupon and The Associated Press contributed.