- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2010

Just two days before Christmas, marketing manager Margi MacDuff was ebullient, talking on the phone from the Huntington Mall in Barboursville, W.Va., where shoppers were out in last-minute fury.

Crowds were swelling at midmorning, and the weather was cooperating, with deals to be had after two years of Grinchy retail gloom, she said. Two mall stores planned to open at midnight Thursday for a 36-hour run to the shopping finish line in hopes of luring the Christmas-complacent.

“We’re really excited by our numbers. We’ve had a record, it seems like,” Ms. MacDuff said.

“The last weekend was busier than our Black Friday, when we had a top sales day for a number of our stores for their region,” she said. “People are sick of this stupid recession and ready to get back into it, it seems.”

Across the nation, as the “Ho-Ho-Ho” season concludes, the retail outlook is improving, with revenues up 5.5 percent a week ahead of Christmas, a marked increase over last year, when that figure fell 6.2 percent, according to ShopperTrak.

Amid heightened optimism, the National Retail Federation in Washington revised its holiday sales forecast on Dec. 15 to a 3.3 percent increase (estimated at $451.5 billion for 2010) up from the 2.3 percent figure analysts projected earlier this year.

The better economic news keeps coming.

According to reports from the U.S. Commerce Department, retail sales rose 0.8 percent in November, an increase for the fifth straight month, with personal spending edging up by 0.4 percent. The Labor Department reported Thursday that unemployment benefit claims fell for three straight weeks to some of the lowest numbers in the past two years, though unemployment remains at 9.8 percent and is not expected to improve drastically in the year ahead.

Even as the economy was a long way from a full-bore boom, the spirit of giving was improving. Deborah Sanderson, a 58-year-old chemist from Livonia, Mich., spent Thursday gleefully shopping for clothes for her first grandson, born last month.

“We’re spending more this year than we did in years past,” she said as she braved the chilly air and crowds at an outlet mall in Howell, Mich.

“We’ve waited longer to get the better deals,” she said of her family strategy. “The economy has been hard on everyone, especially around here. But I do think people are still cautious but breathing a tiny bit easier and hoping that the worst is behind us.”

A survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. found that close to 74 percent of shoppers were finished with holiday purchases through the week ending Dec. 18, a 4.2 percent increase in early shopping over the same time in 2009.

Eric Litz, who manages regional malls in Gainesville and Tallahassee, Fla., said his state’s retail federation projected a 3 percent to 4 percent sales growth for the holiday season, a figure he thinks has the potential to go higher amid marked consumer enthusiasm in the Sunshine State.

“The shopping traffic and reports from retailers have been good to excellent,” he said. “There seems to be a higher intensity of traffic throughout the day. I get the sense that people are staying a little longer than the year before, and we are seeing a lot of packages. It appears that shoppers here are more back to the trend of 2006-2007, before the troubles hit, at least for the holiday season.”

Of those shopping early Thursday, most were looking for solid discounts and specific gifts rather than certificates, Ms. MacDuff said. “We are not seeing a spike in gift-card sales but sales from customers buying those individual presents for their loved ones,” she said.

“I think a lot of that is that customers are upbeat and positive. Stores are using every second they can to grasp a hold of that spirit this season.”

Linda McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the upscale Somerset Collection in Troy, Mich., described the holiday shopping as “amazing.”

“It’s the mindset this season,” she said. “People seem to be enjoying shopping; there seems to be a sense of celebration for the season again. I don’t think it’s the economy. I think people have just made up their minds that they are going to enjoy it this year.”

More shoppers, she said of the optimism trend, are purchasing for themselves as well as buying holiday gifts. Mall restaurants also are fuller with holiday business lunches, and more companies are purchasing corporate gifts and gift cards for employees, she said, noting that one business owner popped in to snag three boxes of Apple iPads for his staff.

Retailers, she said, also have stepped up customer service to make the bustle of holiday shopping more pleasant.

“They are offering gift wrapping, bottled water, chocolates to customers waiting in lines,” she said. “Stores really bought well this year, too. No one is understocked, and the classics are back. People are looking for that cashmere sweater, great leather bags, investment pieces you can build a wardrobe on. It’s been magnificent.”