- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2000

Retailers are seeing fewer holiday shoppers so far this season compared with last year, but they are optimistic consumers will jam their stores as the last weekend for gift shopping approaches.

"The proverbial floodgates have opened up and we are in the last-minute Christmas shopping [rush]," said Mike Romstad, general manager for Fashion Center at Pentagon City.

"In the beginning part of the Christmas season, we had a strong opening weekend" after Thanksgiving, he said. "Then it flattened out … and this past weekend we had a tremendous pickup and it has been very busy."

The number of shoppers last week declined 9.6 percent in malls and 14.4 percent in department stores compared with the same week last year, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade group in Washington.

But 8.6 percent more shoppers went to the malls last week compared with the previous week, while 11.7 percent more shoppers visited department stores.

Some 62.5 million shoppers browsed or bought gifts for friends and family Saturday, making it the busiest day of this holiday season since "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving.

"Overall traffic figures are trending lower" compared with last year, said Sarah Scheuer, spokeswoman for the retail federation. "However, in terms of how this season is going, well, people were initially concerned with the lower numbers [of shoppers], that people won't be shopping. But with another full week ahead we are certainly expecting a ramping up in traffic."

Six days before Christmas, retailers are betting on the 85 percent of Americans who have not finished their shopping to increase sales this week, according to the International Mass Retail Association (IMRA) in Arlington.

Miss Scheuer pointed out that the Saturday before Christmas last year was the biggest shopping day of the season, in terms of the number of shoppers. Retailers expect a repeat performance this year, she said.

Locally, malls are seeing more gift shoppers. Sales at Pentagon City Mall are up 5 percent compared with last year, and Potomac Mills, the popular outlet mall in Dale City, Va., has seen sales rise 2.5 percent.

Some analysts blame this year's bitterly contested presidential recount for distracting shoppers and delaying the start of the shopping season.

"Particularly here, probably a lot of people were wondering where their jobs were going to go," Mr. Romstad said. "So I think that led to a little bit of a slowdown."

Blizzards and ice storms in the Midwest have also hurt sales, analysts said. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. yesterday blamed bad weather for the retail giant's failure to meet sales projections for the third week in a row.

One-quarter of American consumers haven't even started their Christmas shopping yet, said Edie Clark, spokeswoman for IMRA.

"It's been typical for the past few years to wait until the last minute," she said. "When we asked shoppers in October, some 2 percent said they won't shop until right before Christmas. So there are some who literally will go out shopping Christmas Day."

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