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Tampa Bay holiday shoppers flock to rare deep discounts

Mike Barbour of Largo checks out a flat-screen television at Best Buy, 6600 22nd Ave. N in St. Petersburg, on Monday. Retail experts say that steep discounts are rare this season.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Mike Barbour of Largo checks out a flat-screen television at Best Buy, 6600 22nd Ave. N in St. Petersburg, on Monday. Retail experts say that steep discounts are rare this season.

Mary Breza is the sort of last-minute holiday shopper retailers hope to see more of this week.

"I thought 35 percent discounts were good enough," said the Tampa retiree as she wrapped up her holiday shopping Sunday. "I've held out later in the past, but anything you'd really want is gone."

Experts are still figuring out how much shoppers spent over what was supposed to be the biggest shopping weekend of the year. Storms disrupted shopping up and down the East Coast, wiping out $2 billion in sales, but locally cool weather is usually good for stores as their holiday season heads to a photo finish.

Gauging from the crowds at Tampa Bay malls, shoppers chastened by a growing sense of practicality have not shed their discount mentality. And stores, which bought less for the season because of the recession, are trying to protect profits by holding the line on pricing.

"We are not discounting as much as last year," said Heather Shaw, manager of Saks Fifth Avenue, which, like rival Neiman Marcus, over the weekend started filling clearance racks with fall designer goods at 40 to 60 percent off.

Retail experts think there's still time for merchants nationally to make up sales lost to foul weather. Meanwhile, sales through online retailers, which were 4 percent ahead of a year ago late last week, got a big boost over the weekend from snowed-in shoppers.

Clearly, the holiday spirit endures despite rising unemployment. Christmas tree sales are up 3 percent this season. Lines to see Santa are as long as ever. But in a sign of the times, Finish Line and Foot Locker for the first time last week started accepting layaway orders for shoes.

Weekend traffic was uneven at major shopping hubs. Discount stores were a mob scene, like the gridlock at a Pinellas Park Walmart Supercenter that caused U.S. 19 motorists to sit through an extra red light cycle to get there. Malls were teeming, but not quite as busy as normal for the final weekend push. Stores where prices were promoted at 50 percent off or more drew the most customers.

They were lined up 10 deep Saturday at the Aeropostale checkout in St. Petersburg, where the entire store was promoted at 50 to 70 percent off. Same thing at Aldo shoes in International Plaza and New York & Co. in WestShore Plaza in Tampa, where managers put everything at half price Thursday.

More typical was Dillard's, which during last year's debacle of overstocked retailers was promoting 70 percent discounts. This time Dillard's was a forest of 30 and 40 percent discounts and "special purchases." The juniors dress department had two small racks of 70 percent off clearance goods that were laced with out-of-season party dresses.

On the other hand, tightened-up inventory to restore profitability helped more than double Dillard's stock price since July.

"My surveys show shoppers buying only the basics and holding out for 60 to 70 percent off, yet what I see in stores is 30 to 40," said Britt Beemer, president of America's Research Group. "This season could be one of the few when Black Friday turns out to be the biggest day of the year."

It's part of a larger shift away from conspicuous consumption as Americans get more cautious about running up credit card debt after quadrupling the savings rate to 4.4 percent of income. According to surveys by Consumer Reports, 68 percent of shoppers plan to pay off all holiday credit card debt next month, 7 percentage points more than a year ago. In 2007 it was half.

A third more shoppers plan to buy more practical gifts this season and that's what 34 percent more expect to find under the tree.

"It's part of a new normal we'll see settle in over the next six or seven quarters as people ratchet back and rethink how we acquire things," said Ed Farrell, research director for Consumer Reports.

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

Tampa Bay holiday shoppers flock to rare deep discounts 12/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 10:04pm]
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