Merchants stepping up efforts to tempt hesitant holiday buyers

Associated Press

NEW YORK — The clock is ticking for retailers.

While the holiday season opened with a strong start the day after Thanksgiving, mall traffic has been down and sales lackluster since then. And with 10 days left until Christmas, merchants are realizing that it’s going to take a lot more than a few prayers to meet their sales expectations.

As such, many retailers, such as Sears, Roebuck &amp Co., are expected to ramp up sales efforts this weekend, trying to entice consumers to come to the malls with even bigger discounts.

Even online retailers, like Kmart Corp.’s, are trying to capitalize on the last-minute shopping rush by offering free express and priority delivery, to extend the season. For most e-commerce sites, the season ended on Dec. 11, the last day that consumers can order gifts via standard mail.

"You are going to see big-time promotions," said John Konarski, vice president of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It is sort of a cat-and-mouse game. Consumers are holding out for the big deals, and retailers are wondering how much they should give in."

"Retailers need to rethink what to do next," agreed Michael Niemira, vice president of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd., who believes that this year’s holiday sales will turn out to be the weakest since 1996.

"Do you step up promotions and risk hurting profit margins? If not, can you really be sure it will get better?" he said. "But there is very little they can do at this point. Their situation is very much locked into the economics."

Retailers were already bracing for a difficult and delayed season due to a number of factors. Stock market volatility and a slowing economy have made consumers more cautious about buying discretionary items, or merchandise they don’t actually need.

Furthermore, a 31-day shopping season, which is two days longer than normal, may be encouraging last-minute buying of gifts.

However, retailers and analysts have been "shellshocked" over the deterioration of traffic and sales they’ve seen since Thanksgiving, according to Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard’s Retail Marketing Report, based in Upper Montclair, N.J.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, sales at specialty stores in the nation’s malls declined 9.8 percent for the week ended Dec. 10, compared to the same period last year.

Mall traffic, which has been down since Thanksgiving, further deteriorated this past weekend, according to RCT Systems, a research firm. The number of visitors declined 3.7 percent compared with the year-ago period.

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