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Stores shift into last-minute holiday sales mode

Black Friday shoppers fill the Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg on Nov. 25. Now that the buzz of the early holiday shopping season has passed, stores are trying their best to outdo rivals to cash in on the last full weekend before Christmas.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Black Friday shoppers fill the Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg on Nov. 25. Now that the buzz of the early holiday shopping season has passed, stores are trying their best to outdo rivals to cash in on the last full weekend before Christmas.

Striding out of Toys "R" Us with a full bag Wednesday, Stoney Chavis was crossing the next-to-last item off his 10-gift holiday shopping list.

"I'll be done in another hour," said the St. Petersburg retiree. "The prices were good this year, particularly at Macy's, but pretty much the same as they were Black Friday."

Those are hardly encouraging words to retailers careening into this, the final full weekend of their Christmas holiday season. With virtually all stores closing early on Christmas Eve, which falls on a Saturday this year, the calendar is working against them. So with only nine shopping days left, stores are turning up the volume and promoting deals for a big finish.

For the first time, local Kohl's, Macy's, JCPenney and selected Sears stores in Brandon, Clearwater and St. Petersburg will extend their hours to midnight every night from tonight through Dec. 23. Today may be Free Shipping Day with special discounts from thousands of online retailers, but many sites led by Amazon.com already extended free shipping offers until Monday. At Westfield Brandon mall, valet parking will be free, and local choral groups and a local band, Nunes at Nite, will perform seasonal concerts in the restaurant courtyard this weekend.

"We're taking it up a notch for the homestretch," said Sam Davidson, mall marketing director.

Experts and retailers agree it's needed. Nationally, sales of general merchandise were up a respectable 4.5 percent in November from a year ago, thanks to a burst of buying on Black Friday weekend, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Online retail sales have been running 15 percent ahead of last year for their best season ever, according to ComScore Inc. But the usual post-Black Friday doldrums set in, meaning consumers are "waiting until the very end to complete their holiday shopping," said Michael Niemira, chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

There are conflicting reports about how willing consumers are to keep up the spending pace. It's a big deal because retail inventories were not built up much more than a year ago. So, stores are less desperate to cut prices to dump unsold goods at the end unless they have to stimulate demand.

One school of thought holds that without deeper price cuts, spending has already peaked. America's Research Group surveys report that 40 percent of shoppers said they are done holiday shopping, compared with 25 percent a year ago, the most since 2004.

"There will be a big surge this weekend, but without tempting price cuts of 60 to 70 percent, the consumer is done," said Britt Beemer, president of the firm. "They are tapped out."

Big Research, meanwhile, found half of all shoppers are less than half done and only 8 percent say they are finished.

"It's early and there are still a lot of sales to be done," said Brian Dunn, chief executive of Best Buy Inc. "Retail has been very promotional and consumers very value-conscious this season, so we're stepping up our promotional efforts."

"Retailers still have a few tricks up their sleeves to entice even the more extreme procrastinators looking to cross the final names off their list," said Matt Shay, chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation, which on Thursday bumped up its sales gain forecast for the two-month season by 1 percentage point to 3.8 percent.

Despite all the extended hours next week, virtually all retailers will close early on Christmas Eve. The malls will lock up at 6 p.m., Walmart at 8 p.m. and Target at 9 p.m. Toys "R" us will be open 112 hours straight between 6 a.m. Tuesday and 10 p.m. Christmas Eve.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8252.

Stores shift into last-minute holiday sales mode 12/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 15, 2011 10:16pm]

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