Looking for last-minute holiday sales? Don't count on 'em.

After bargain-hunting for weeks, holiday shoppers looking for last-minute deals will find skimpy inventories and few deals.

Richard B. Levine/Newscom
Customers browse the netbook computers in a Best Buy electronics store in New York on Tuesday, Dec. 15. Last-minute holiday shopping might end up painfully for shoppers and retailers alike.

Last-minute shoppers and the retailers counting on them might be in for a disappointing end to this holiday season.

"Retailers have trained us that the closer it gets to Christmas, the better the discounts. So with that training, we are waiting," says Marge Laney, president of Alert Technologies, a retail-consulting firm in Seabrook, Texas.

In the stare-down between consumers and businesses, Ms. Laney says, the question is always "Who is going to blink first?"

The answer this year might be neither. And that would be bad for both.

First, retailers waiting for a last-minute push from shoppers might be misreading consumer sentiment, says Doug Stephens, president of Retail Prophet Consulting in Unionville, Ontario.
"There seems to be this overbearing sense that the consumer is holding out for sales, and I don’t think it has sunk in that the consumers out there are terrified. They’re terrified about their jobs, about paying their mortgage, and now they are scared that maybe interest rates will climb," Mr. Stephens says. "We’re waiting for something that’s not going to happen."

So, discounts might hurt the retailer without boosting sales.

"Let’s assume we’re up 1 percent [in sales] from last year," Stephens says. "Are we going to come out on the other side of this season and say in the process of getting that 1 we’re down 10 percent [in revenue]? The big 'aha' here might be at the end of the holidays when retailers look at all the discounting we did, and maybe it didn’t move our product [sales] needle at all."

Retailers have kept inventories low to protect against the types of massive losses seen in 2008. Laney says that stores looking to get the most bang for their buck are stocking limited quantities of each size of dress, for example, meaning that stocks are thinner and last-minute shoppers will have even less to choose from.

"You’re going to see the discounts is on the leftovers, on the extra-larges," Laney says. Retailers have "made their point: If you see it, you better buy it because it might not be here in your size."

So as retailers hold out for shoppers who may not be coming, those who do end up rushing out to the store on Christmas Eve might still end up frustrated.

"You’ll see a lot of out of stock," Laney says. "Shelves are empty."

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