- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

Steady crowds of shoppers returned to malls across the country Saturday, rummaging through thinly stocked shelves hunting for deals, next year’s Christmas gifts and, for most, gifts for themselves.

Retailers made a push to woo gift-card-toting shoppers by slashing prices and advertising doorbuster deals - at some stores more than 60 percent off clothing such as pajamas, sweaters and ties before 1 p.m. - often reserved for the day after Thanksgiving.

Diana Mayfield, a 56-year-old business trainer from Jacksonville, Ill., managed to get two Christmas ornaments for $6, marked down from $28. She was out before dawn Saturday while visiting family in Maryland, scouring for next year’s Christmas gifts.

“It’s 60 percent off original, so that’s pretty good,” she said while eyeing a rack of sweaters. “I usually get my electronics the day after Thanksgiving, and we get clothes and paper goods the day after Christmas.”

Knowing holiday shoppers would likely spend less, merchants carefully managed inventory for the season. That meant some store shelves were practically empty by Saturday.

Weather also could complicate things again this weekend, as a strong snowstorm swept across portions of the nation’s midsection and rain dampened the Mid-Atlantic through New England.

“I think the big concern on all retailers’ minds today will be the factor of the weather,” said Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears and Kmart stores. “But it seems so far, customers have a good resolve to get out. … You’ve got a lot of thrifty shopers out today looking for great values.”

Donna Brown, 52, a hairdresser from Seaford, Del., visited the Centre at Salisbury on Tuesday but returned Saturday to find few pairs of the $11.99 pajamas she’d been eyeing at J.C. Penney, which opened at 5 a.m.

“Now there’s nothing,” she said. “Everything’s been picked over.”

In New Jersey, Bernaden Demesyeux wasn’t having much luck, either, despite arriving at her local mall just before 6:30.

“I was trying to find a dress coat for my husband, but didn’t find anything,” she said after more than an hour of shopping. “Everything is the same prices as before.”

The week after Christmas is big business for retailers, making up 15 percent of sales last year, according to research from ShopperTrak, which tracks sales and traffic at more than 50,000 outlets.

To help their cause, retailers sent a barrage of e-mails to faithful shoppers in the past day. “Wasn’t under the tree? Get it now at the Apple Store,” read one from Apple Inc.

Wal-Mart was offering half off toys, and Toys R Us touted “buy one, get one half-off” offers. At Sears, customers could find coats for 70 percent off, while some jeans were $10. And Gap Inc.’s Old Navy brand was selling men’s and women’s jeans for $15 for the day, and an e-mail encouraged shoppers to “redeem your gift cards today.”

Gift-card sales are not recorded until shoppers redeem them.

Retailers received a much-needed last-minute sales surge in the final days before Dec. 25, fueled by shoppers who delayed buying, waited for bigger discounts that never came or were slowed by last weekend’s big East Coast snowstorm.

The full holiday picture won’t be known until merchants report December sales Jan. 7. But most expect merchants’ fourth-quarter profits should be intact because they didn’t press the panic button.

Anne D’Innocenzio and Michelle Chapman contributed to this report.

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