Retailers gearing up for big pre-Christmas shopping in next two days

Fathers and other pre-Christmas procrastinators are expected to hit the stores in force on Friday, kicking off a calendar-enhanced flurry of holiday shopping that should warm retailers' hearts.

Steven Senne/AP
Shoppers shop in Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Thursday. Fathers and other Christmas shoppers are expected to help shops bolster their holiday sales.

It’s beginning to shape up as a perfect storm – in a good sense – for retailers.

On Friday, many Americans ­– especially procrastinating dads – are taking off from work or leaving early to hit the malls.

Even better, Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday, which means the dads don’t have to lie to the boss about why they are not at work.

And, to top it off, retail experts think Monday – an official holiday – will also be a big day as holiday presents get returned and gift cards used.

As a result of all these extra shopping days – combined with improving consumer sentiment – it looks as if the holiday season could sparkle for the nation’s retailers.

“I expect Christmas to be stronger than normal,” says Bill Martin, the president of ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based company that monitors retail sales. “The calendar helps.”

Mr. Martin refers to Friday as “Father’s Day” since that’s when many men will begin their holiday shopping. “I expect it to be a pretty significant day,” he forecasts.

Because of what appears to be better-than-expected buying, some analysts are bumping up their outlook for holiday sales. Chris Christopher, a senior economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. had anticipated holiday sales would rise by 4.2 percent. Now, he thinks it will be closer to 5 percent.

“We think consumers will shop right to the end,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt that gasoline prices are down.”

On Saturday and Monday, consumers are likely to find the best bargains, says Mr. Martin. “They will find 40 percent to 50 percent off selected merchandize, but that is quite different from a few years ago when the stores were taking off 60 percent to 70 percent.”

In fact, many items this holiday period are actually more expensive, says Mr. Christopher. He thinks about half the increase in holiday sales will be directly related to higher prices.

“Consumers are spending more and getting less,” he says.

Even though consumers are opening up their wallets, Christopher says they are still careful about their purchases. “They are not being lavish,” he explains.

In fact, many consumers are using their smart phones and other mobile devices to find bargains. An analysis over the last few days by the research firm Crimson Hexagon, based in Boston, found 38 percent of online conversations were about sales and deals.

However, consumers are far from happy with their smart phone experience, the survey found. More than 41 percent of the conversations had to do with consumer frustration with mobile transactions.

As a result of the frustrations, many retailers have had to revamp their mobile apps and websites. In an analysis of the I-Tunes App Store, Tealeaf, a San Francisco-based software company, found that 11 of the top 35 retailers updated their apps since Black Friday. Despite those updates, Tealeaf, which tries to help companies improve their mobile and online experience, found frustrations remained at a high level.

For those who prefer walking the malls, it’s also a trying experience – just finding a parking spot.

At the Burlington Mall in Burlington, Mass., the parking lot started filling up at 10 a.m. on Thursday. “It was very hard to find a parking spot,” says Dan Yang, the CEO of Rullingnet and the creator of VINCI Genius, an electronic touch-screen tablet for toddlers. Ms. Yang was at the mall as part of her marketing efforts for the $389 product.

One of those people who will at the malls on Friday is Tymika Morrison, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is only working half a day. She rationalizes her procrastination because she has been working long hours and is not in the mood to shop when she is done with work.

“When I’m working long hours, I just want to be home,” she says.

Another last minute shopper on Friday is Maggy Ralbovksy, a resident of Keene, N.H., who is looking for stocking stuffers. “I have a little wiggle room in the day to get out,” says Ms. Ralbovsky, a publicist. “I think my workday will be a little quieter.”

However, it won’t be quiet at the malls. Yang says she will be back talking to parents at the mall on Friday and Saturday. “Since people won’t be working it will be even harder to find parking,” she says.

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