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Shoppers head back to stores to make returns, shop bargains

Shoppers who took a breather from gift buying on Christmas marched back into stores Thursday to return unwanted items, redeem gift cards and take advantage of deeply discounted merchandise.

"I got some great deals on ornaments at Macy's,'' said Marianne Forcione of Clearwater, while shopping with her husband, Robert, at WestShore Plaza in Tampa. "I needed to get out of the house and away from the cooking.''

Stores pulled out post-Christmas deals in hopes of unloading inventory and ending a mediocre sales season on a high note. Old Navy offered up to 75 percent off some clothing, including $36.50 RockStar jeans for $12. Brookstone had "buy one item, get another 50 percent off'' the entire store.

Wal-Mart, Kohl's and other stores opened early and stayed open late to better accommodate shoppers and spread out crowds, which were more calm and relaxed than a few days earlier.

"This is an especially big time for people who got gift cards to come and spend on what they didn't get for Christmas," said Sarah McKinney, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.

This season, about eight in 10 shoppers planned to buy at least one gift card — totaling nearly $30 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Helena Marklin of Wesley Chapel took her $20 gift card from JCPenney's to the Shops at Wiregrass to buy Sephora makeup. Arriving at 1 p.m., the toughest part was finding a parking spot.

Despite complaints about bad weather hurting holiday sales in many parts of the country, Florida retailers appear to have fared better this season. The Florida Retail Federation said it expected to hit its projected sales growth of 3.5 to 4.5 percent over last year.

"What we're hearing from the retailers is that they are doing good. There's a general sense of optimism,'' said federation spokesman John Fleming. "I think we're going to look back on this season and see Christmas 2013 was a pretty good year for retail.''

Netta Atar, a manager of the Vine Vera skin care kiosk at WestShore Plaza, said business was "okay'' and picked up closer to Christmas. "The last two weeks were really busy.''

Nationwide, consumers were forecast to spend $602 billion this holiday shopping season, up 3.5 percent over last year. However, based on preliminary sales, those gains could be closer to 2.4 percent, the smallest increase since 2009, according to ShopperTrak.

The Chicago-based retail analyzer reported that between Dec. 16 and Dec. 22, in-store retail sales were down 3.1 percent compared with last year and traffic was down 21.2 percent.

"Retailers did not see as many shoppers as last year,'' said Bill Martin, ShopperTrak's founder.

Part of the reason was the calendar. Because Thanksgiving was so late this year, there were six fewer days in the shopping season, forcing retailers to lure shoppers earlier with steeper discounts.

Online sales were another factor. The latest data from comScore analytics showed online holiday sales were up 10 percent but fell short of expectations the week before Christmas. Overall, digital sales were expected to reach $55.2 billion, most of it from desktop devices and a small, but growing, portion from smartphones and tablets.

Although final holiday sales won't be available until after mid-January, Florida retailers enjoyed the benefit of a strong tourism base and mild weather, Fleming said. Vacationers flocked to the stores to take advantage of bargains and a selection they might not have at home.

"We saved our money and shopped today,'' said Michael Craig, who was vacationing from north of Toronto. "We found some really good deals.''

He and his family went to WestShore Plaza early Thursday before heading to the beach.

Many retailers opted to move up their traditional January clearance sales and markdowns to the week after Christmas. By Thursday, many stores had posted semi-annual sale signs, with discounts of 50 to 75 percent on select items.

Still, shoppers were cautious about spending, buying only what caught their eye at a good price. At WestShore Plaza, Cheryl Dickson of Tampa bought a pair of jeans marked down from $89 to $30 at Macy's and a half-priced necklace for $20 at JCPenney's. She also returned a shirt that didn't fit.

"I thought it would be loaded with people here but it's not,'' she said.

Times staff writer Lisa Buie contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires. Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.

Shoppers head back to stores to make returns, shop bargains 12/26/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 26, 2013 11:03pm]

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