By JAMISON COCKLIN
Few days remain before holiday gifts find a home under trees across the country, and last-minute shoppers continue picking out this year’s favorites, with electronics and clothing atop consumer lists in Ohio.
At the same time, data from online retailers, brick-and-mortar shops large and small and price-tracking firms show it’s not all that simple with some surprises shaping up among this year’s must-have gifts.
Statewide, holiday sales are expected to increase by 4.2 percent in November and December, this on top of a 5.6 percent increase in 2011, according to the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants. In Youngstown, sales are expected to rise by 3.4 percent, with Valley consumers predicted to spend $583 million this season.
“Clothing and electronics are the two leaders this year. That could be anything from computer equipment to tablets,” said Gordon Gough, executive vice president of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants. “I think when Apple came out with the smaller tablets they were really anticipating that rise in popularity.”
Since its 2010 debut, Apple has sold more than 84 million iPads, but in October, when the company released its $329 iPad mini, consumers were immediately spellbound by its one-handed ease and 7.9-inch screen.
As in seasons past, the tablets are easily a top seller, capable of performing nearly all the same tasks as a traditional computer or laptop. For now, tablet sales are outpacing those of their desktop counterparts.
Joined by Kindle Fire and Paperwhite, the Nabi Tablet for children and the Samsung Galaxy 10- and 7-inch Android-based tablets, along with the Nook e-reader, stores from Toys “R” Us to Best Buy are having trouble keeping up a readily available in-store stock.
“They’re all selling out fast,” said Jody Esposito, store manager at the Best Buy on U.S. Route 224 in Boardman. “Sales in general are leaning towards tablets and getting away from laptops.”
Mandi Angelo, a sales manager at electronics retailer h.h. gregg in Boardman, said that as smartphones grow in popularity, so too do tablets. Their convenience, Internet capabilities and the ease with which online books can be downloaded make them an easy sell. Depending on the model, popular tablets range from about $50 to more than $500.
“They’re a versatile gift,” Esposito added. “Seniors, kids, parents, everyone is buying them.”
Within two hours of opening on a recent Monday, Best Buy had sold 30 Kindles, Esposito said. The trend is no different on Amazon.com, where Kindles were leading the way in electronics sales midweek.
Not surprisingly, Amazon has also had success with sales of the $260 Apple TV, a 3.9-inch receiver that allows consumers to stream high-definition videos from iTunes and Netflix, as well as play music and other multimedia.
Sites such as Amazon are keeping a close eye on both their online and in-store competitors this year, stoking in some instances price wars that unfold by the minute between big-name retailers.
What’s more, Zingsale, a price-tracking website, reported Wednesday that online retailers are offering steep discounts to last-minute shoppers, with prices slashed on average 43 percent, compared with an average of 33 percent on Black Friday.
Other than electronics, winners on Amazon.com include video games such as “Assassin’s Creed III” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.” “Spot it,” a pattern-recognition game, and “HedBanz,” a simple questions game that has players guess at the cards strapped to their heads, are leaders in the toys and games category.
At Barnes and Noble, a glance at the B&N top-100 best-selling NOOK ebooks shows “The Traveler’s Gift,” a cross between self-help and fiction at No. 1, followed by two romance novels, “Gone Country” and “His Every Choice.” All the books are priced under $11.
Earlier this week, online analytics firm comScore reported that online holiday spending was approaching $27 billion.
Gough said, however, that as a result, Ohio’s brick-and-mortar retailers were expected to lose about $167 million to their online competition during the holidays, an increase from last year’s estimate of $137 million.
Like other states, Ohio does not require retailers without a physical presence here to pay sales tax, and instead relies on consumers to pay use tax on certain items at the end of the year, which helps reduce the bottom line at traditional retailers. Two bills are winding through the Ohio Legislature to address the issue.
“It’s an unlevel playing field, and it hurts big and small businesses alike,” Gough said. “By far, though, the biggest issue facing small retailers in Ohio — the ones that pay taxes, employ Ohioans and support their communities — is online retailers.”
An increase in online sales has led to what Gough called a “showrooming” trend at in-store locations, when consumers get advice from sales associates on the floor and go back home to purchase goods online at a discount based on their research.
Nona Sorokach, owner of Nona’s Closet in Niles, doesn’t feel her consignment store is as at a disadvantage, though.
“I don’t know about competition — it’s not in my vocabulary,” she said. “Truthfully, we sell a lot of the same things as bigger retailers, and my customers can get the same items at a fraction of the cost. They save so much money on consignment that it would be foolish to spend double or triple.”
Sorokach has noticed business picking up, especially among male shoppers. At the moment, junior-sized hoodie sweat shirts are a hot item with customers calling ahead to check on supplies. The sweat shirts are sold out the moment they go on sale, she said.
Overall, the National Retail Federation predicts gift cards will be the leading gift this year. Total spending on the cards will reach nearly $29 billion, according to a November survey by the group, with men planning to shell out an average of $172.98 for the catch-all gift, compared with the $141.66 women will spend on the cards.
Legos, video games and Hot Wheels are among the top toys for boys this year, according to a similar survey. For girls, it’s Barbie dolls, Furby and Monster High Dolls. Apple iPads and the Nintendo Wii U video-game system are popular wish-list items for children, too.