- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) Merchants are trying to draw last-minute shoppers and give a final boost to sales totals with round-the-clock hours, advertising blitzes, extra catalogs, discounts and more discounts.

Starting Thursday at 6 a.m., Kmart Corp. stores began keeping their doors open for 110 straight hours, compared with last year's 66-hour marathon.

Blockbuster Inc. has increased its TV advertising by 20 percent for the final days before Christmas, while Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which operates 140 malls across the country, stepped up newspaper advertising.

Bloomingdale's, hoping to snag procrastinators, sent an extra catalog, highlighting discounted sweaters and perfumes, to more than 1 million homes in the season's final stretch.

"We're still in striking difference of our sales goal," said Tony Spring, executive vice president of marketing at Bloomingdale's.

This season had five full weekends and was 32 days long, one day more than last year. But many shoppers seem to be staying out of the stores because of unseasonably warm weather, the recession or the shock waves from the September 11 terrorism attacks.

Retail analysts expect the weakest season in more than a decade and don't share merchants' hopes that a significant final buying spree can change that.

"My sense is that people have been buying all along according to their needs, even with the bargains out there," said Philip H. Kowalczyk, vice president of Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm. "There will be a rush, but it will be different. Sales will be depressed because of all the discounts and the conservative spending."

The share of holiday sales generated in the final six days before Christmas has been increasing in the past decade. But C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group of Charleston, S.C., believes that won't happen this year.

He expects the share will drop to about 25 percent, from last year's 30.9 percent, which was a record and a big jump from 23.9 percent in 1999, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

"I think the season peaked," Mr. Beemer said. "Right now, consumers are not interested in buying gifts, but in being with their families."

Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman at the International Council of Shopping Centers, disagrees and is predicting a share of 35 percent, in part because the final six-day period includes a full weekend.

Retailers prefer, and share, his bullishness.

Michael Glazer, president and chief executive officer of K-B Toys, is hoping that a newspaper advertising insert, dropped to 60 million customers earlier in the week, will help the store generate 40 percent of its holiday business in the last six days. That's up from 33 percent a year ago.

"We used to cut off promotions and rely on heavy traffic at the malls," Mr. Glazer said, adding that it started advertising later in the season last year. "What I am hoping for is that we become a destination place."

Kmart suffered a worse-than-expected decline in sales in November and is hoping to recoup during the final 10 days before Christmas. That period traditionally has accounted for 45 percent of holiday sales, according to Jack Ferry, a company spokesman.

There have been a few bright spots in consumer electronics, particularly game consoles and DVD players, kitchenware and certain toys such as Harry Potter games. Customers have bypassed luxury items, such as jewelry, as well as winter apparel in a warmer-than-usual season.

John Morris, an apparel retail analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison, said this weekend could be hurt by all the promotions offered earlier in the season. Customers now may find it harder to locate products they want as merchants, which pared down holiday inventories, cancelled re-orders after September 11.

"Those that waited, expecting a fire sale, may be disappointed," he said.

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