Stores Make An Early Grab For Last-Minute Shoppers

Retailers are hoping for an early Christmas gift this year, trying to coax shoppers to visit their stores and make "last-minute" purchases more than a week before the 25th.

At some major retailers -- including big department store brands -- this Saturday is being billed as the day to score 11th-hour discounts. Stores are hoping the promotion will insulate them from the possibility of a slack Christmas Eve, which falls next Saturday.

When Christmas falls on a Sunday (or on a Saturday), the calendar handicaps stores that are dependent on a full weekend when "last-minute" mentality takes hold and drives shoppers into stores, according to John Long, retail strategist with consulting firm Kurt Salmon.

Although shoppers spent $52 billion on Black Friday weekend, retailers have come to depend on a last-minute rush of consumers trained to hold out until the final hours for the best markdowns. Since merchants can't actually move Christmas Day, they've done the next best thing by moving what's been dubbed "Super Saturday" one week earlier.

Last year, with Christmas falling on a Saturday, stores had no choice but to hype up the preceding weekend. And they hit the jackpot by essentially changing the calendar, according to Long.

"The last Saturday and Sunday last year were among the busiest days of the year for the entire retail calendar," he said. "From a retailer's standpoint, they're obviously trying to 'anniversary' a very heavy weekend."

Spreading out the holiday sales rush also gives stores some breathing room: They can avoid potential sale-killers like empty racks and long lines.

Will consumers play along? They dutifully cracked open their wallets on Black Friday, but according to new data from the National Retail Federation, many are rethinking those purchases; return rates have already increased. Customers have also been trained to wait until the last minute (by the same stores that would like them now to complete their shopping a week earlier); whether they'll repeat last year's earlier spending is an open question.

Retailers also run the risk of alienating consumers fatigued by a growing number of increasingly specific promotional events, ranging from "Small Business Saturday" to "Green Monday." They also risk confusing consumers, since some big brands are sticking to Christmas Eve as the day to court the last-minute crowd.

In spite of the risks, Long said retailers are willing to make the gamble because the payoff could be twofold, with shoppers descending on stores this weekend, and then coming out to buy more on Christmas Eve anyway.

The 24th could end up being what Long called a "bonus day" for retailers. He said department stores, which carry in-demand categories such as apparel and accessories, would benefit, as would retailers of must-have electronics like Apple's iPad tablet.

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