Shoppers starting late this season

Time, resistance ... why the elves are tardy.

Joyce Gioia would like to get her holiday shopping done. But for the past two months, the Greensboro, N.C., woman has spent more time in airports than malls.

Cornelius Simpkins hasn't bought anything yet because he's appalled by the "crass commercialism." But, the Schwenksville, Pa., man expects he'll cave in on the day before Christmas. And Debra Lund of Salt Lake City is sitting on her wallet because she's hoping for discounts on iPods, surround-sound systems, and digital cameras.

Ms. Gioia, Mr. Simpkins, and Ms. Lund are all part of a growing Christmas club: procrastinators. Retail experts believe Americans' propensity to wait until the last minute to shop is one of the major reasons why holiday sales have so far been lower than expected. If they are right, the malls will be packed Saturday as Americans suddenly realize it's their last weekend to shop. Many retailers are catering to them: They're advertising some gifts as great "last minute" ideas or even setting up websites that specialize in filling orders quickly.

"I think a lot of people think the longer they wait, the better the bargain," says Jay MacIntosh, a director of retail and consumer products for Ernst & Young LLP in Chicago. "That's why this weekend will be critical for the holiday period and the year as a whole."

Some analysts blame lackluster post-Thanksgiving sales on the weather. Many parts of the country have been warmer than normal. However, this past week, Old Man Winter is giving consumers from Maine to Florida goose bumps - a factor that might actually help. "There will be some cashmere sold today," says Scott Krugman of the National Retail Federation in Washington. "We'll see a lot more buying of winter apparel over the next two weeks."

The sales will certainly help merchants. Some surveys have found that as of last weekend, consumers had completed less than 15 percent of their holiday shopping. "It seems consumers have dragged their feet a bit this season, which implies that over the next two weeks, sales should really boom as the consumer catches up after their collective procrastination," says Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Regina Conti, an associate professor of psychology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y thinks one reason people delay shopping may be that some perceive it as less and less pleasant as they fight traffic and crowds in the malls.

That's the case with Brian Hoyt and his wife, Stephanie, who live in Alexandria, Va. and haven't cracked their wallets yet. "We want to avoid the mall," says Mr. Hoyt. "I don't want to deal with the crowds."

Lund's strategy for this coming weekend is to be at the mall at 9 a.m.

"I've read that the deals will be great," she says. Even shopping this close to Christmas will be an improvement over last year, when, faced with family illnesses, she raced into Costco on Dec. 24 and bought all her gifts in one 3-1/2 hour spree. "I've never done anything that nuts in my life."

Yet for others, the delay may be due to their concept of the holiday as too commercial, says Ms. Conti, who has studied procrastinators.

That's the case with Simpkins, who says he is appalled that holiday decorations seem to be going up even before Halloween. "I'm not overtly religious," he says, "but at least I can respect the holiday. People should extend more charitable giving instead of bailing out the US economy."

Others say it's the economy - and a rush of business - that has left them with no time to shop. "Business is booming," says Gioia, a strategic business planner who says she barely has time to do her laundry before getting back on a plane. "But, I'm not going to be giving people those little bags of pretzels they give you on an airline, I want something that's a little offbeat, like me."

Retailers are now trying to capture some of those last-minute shoppers. That's the case with Miami-based TracFone, which has sent its 3.8 million customers letters touting its prepaid cellphones as a "last minute" holiday gift.

The Internet giant Yahoo!, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., features a site called Last Minute Gift Center. Perhaps in an indication of how prevalent procrastination has become, traffic on the site is up 40 percent over last year, says Rob Solomon, a vice president of Yahoo! Shopping.

"This year, the sweet spot for most merchants is December 21 or 22, when some cut off their ability to deliver."

However, for some people, shopping at the last minute is a dubious family tradition. Rita Emmett of Des Plaines, Ill., recalls that her father used to wait until Dec. 24 to look for gifts. "He would race after work before the stores would close and just grab what he could."

That last-minute grab resulted in Rita, at age 11, receiving a cheese basket. (Her brother told him, "Dad, its about the birth of Jesus, not cheeses.") One time he gave his wife an electric frying pan after she asked for something romantic.

"My mom wouldn't talk to him for six days and it finally cost him a box of candy, a necklace and earring set, a really nice purse, and a fake fur coat," says Ms. Emmett.

Still, she picked up her father's habits, buying gifts that no one else in the family wanted. Then she became "a recovering procrastinator," even writing a book called "The Procrastinator's Handbook."

Her advice to all those late shoppers: Make lists and simplify. And no cheese gifts for your 11-year-old - even if the baskets are half-price.

Ho, ho, help! The season's busiest shopping days


Friday, Nov. 28
Saturday, Dec. 20
Friday, Dec. 26


Saturday, Dec. 21
Friday, Nov. 29
Monday, Dec. 23


Saturday, Dec. 22
Friday, Nov. 23
Saturday, Dec. 15

Source: Shopper Trak

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