Christmas' future: more shopping

The day after Christmas is one of the busier days of the year for America's retailers. Not that they're ringing up record sales. But all those people returning unsightly presents can really crowd the nation's sales counters.

It's part of a larger trend that is stretching out the Christmas season.

Thanks to the growing use of gift cards, which usually aren't redeemed until after Christmas, and the popularity of Internet purchases, which can't be done at the last minute, consumers can look forward to even longer Christmas shopping seasons in the future. It probably will mean more ads and promotions starting earlier in the fall and encroaching on the new year.

"The real sharp drop-off after Christmas that we used to see is really not there," says Jason Milch, spokesman at ShopperTrak, a retail-intelligence firm in Chicago that monitors shopper traffic. "We get a little more of a lingering spending pattern. You can even see it in the way we track the season. We used to track up to Dec. 26 and that was it. Now [starting last year], we track it up through Jan. 4."

Of course, the busiest shopping days of the year - the Saturday before Christmas and the day after Thanksgiving - are likely to remain retailers' most lucrative. The traditional forces that squeeze the shopping period are still at work: the pressures of time, family obligations, and present-buying dilemmas.

Even with all the advance notice, this year 23 percent of Americans hadn't started their Christmas shopping by Dec. 15, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. At the other end of the scale are the 10 percent of consumers who start in October or earlier.

Sales also play a big role. "Stores will typically have certain items on sale for two or three hours only [the day after Thanksgiving] to get people in the stores and create excitement and interest," explains Dave Brennan, professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. That, coupled with extraordinary opening hours, sometimes as early as 6 a.m., creates a kind of competitive sporting atmosphere that draws the bargain shopper.

This year, however, retailers are trying to break the discounting cycle by offering fewer sales, according to Mr. Milch. As a result, sales volumes have been higher than last year for the same period. On Dec. 20, the Saturday before Christmas and traditionally the busiest day of the year, sales reached $7.3 billion, according to ShopperTrak. That's 4.9 percent higher than last year's busiest day.

Strange as it may seem, many people actually like to shop in crowds.

"Even back in the days when we were hunters and gatherers, [going to market] was the chance to look at other people," says Paco Underhill, author of the soon to be released "Call of the Mall." And the isolating aspects of suburban life have only made the desire to mingle in public places even greater, he adds. "People have been cooped up for an entire day with their families and they are not used to it. It's a safety valve. Let's go shopping, let's not focus on each other."

All these have combined to keep the Saturday before Christmas and Thanksgiving's "Black Friday" - so-called because that was the day retailers traditionally turned a profit for the year and went into the black - at the top of the sales charts.

But now holiday sales' hour-glass figure is gaining some middle-age spread.

The earlier start to the season and lingering sales after Christmas, along with the leap in Internet purchases, which are growing about 25 percent a year compared with 5 percent for overall retail, are adding girth to the sales season.

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