Retailers hope today can save the shopping season


NEW YORK (AP) — Shoppers hit the stores early Friday to return unwanted gifts and take advantage of drastic price cuts offered by retailers desperate to get rid of old merchandise and boost their less-than-cheery holiday sales.

Many retailers opened before 6 a.m., offering deals like 50 percent to 75 percent off on toys, furniture, electronics and clothing. JCPenney opened at 5:30 a.m. — the earliest post-Christmas opening in the chain’s history — and offered customers more than 100 “doorbusters” until 1 p.m, including 75 percent off Christmas decorations. The chain even made wake-up calls to customers who signed up online.

Stores were hoping the discounts would entice shoppers to redeem gift cards and use cash from returning unwanted gifts to buy something new.

But with gift card sales down this holiday season and consumers looking to save money rather than spend it, even the big discounts may not be enough to salvage what looks to be one of the most dismal holiday shopping seasons in years.

“The last week of December represents about 14 percent of Christmas sales,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group. “You can’t save a season with only one-seventh of the sales to go.”

The holiday season — which typically accounts for 30 percent to 50 percent of a retailer’s annual total sales — has been less than jolly for most retailers. Job cuts, portfolio losses and other economic woes have convinced consumers to cut back on their spending. Meanwhile, strong winter storms during the holiday season kept some would-be shoppers at home.

According to preliminary data from SpendingPulse — a division of MasterCard Advisors that tracks total sales paid for by credit card, checks and cash — retail sales fell between 5.5 percent and 8 percent during the holiday season compared with last year. Excluding auto and gas sales, they fell 2 percent to 4 percent, according to SpendingPulse.

Sales of women’s clothing dropped nearly 23 percent while men’s clothing sales slipped more than 14 percent. Footwear sales fell 13.5 percent. Sales of electronics and appliances fell even more drastically, dropping almost 27 percent.

More consumers appeared to do their shopping online, particularly in the last two weeks of the season when storms snowed shoppers in. Online sales dipped just 2.3 percent from the 2007 holiday season, according to SpendingPulse.

A better indicator of how retailers fared will arrive Jan. 8, when major stores report same-store sales, or sales at locations open at least a year, for December.

With sales so far slim, retailers were hoping the day after Christmas would bring out bargain-hunters.

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