- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Procrastinating shoppers headed to local malls and discount stores Christmas Eve to scoop up bargains left by anxious retailers.
Despite the onslaught of shoppers since the weekend, the season has disappointed retailers who rely on the holiday season to boost yearly revenue. Sales have been slow as consumers remain plagued by economic woes, job insecurity and the threat of terrorism.
By midmorning yesterday, some stores still had plenty of inventory left, despite heavy discounts offered all season. Other retailers had empty shelves and picked-over merchandise.
"I came in to get some Santa gifts for my husband and dogs, and the stuff was really strewn all over the store," said Kelly Huber, who was shopping at the Wal-Mart in Germantown. "I've never waited this long until the last minute, but I just ran out of time like the rest of the people here."
But Mrs. Huber was able to find some dog toys, scarves and CDs for her family. "If you can find it, it's great, but nothing is in its original position," she said.
By 10:30 a.m., the Wal-Mart parking lot was filling up, with most of the customers buying an extra roll of wrapping paper, tape, holiday cards and smaller items for stockings.
"It's like this in the morning, but by four this afternoon we'll have people shoving around for the last Scotch tape or tin of butter cookies," said a Wal-Mart cashier who asked not to be named.
This season, consumers and retailers faced a shorter-than-usual shopping season from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas six fewer days than last year.
The shorter season has been a "a little more stressful," said Pam Poolson of Elkridge, Md., who was shopping with her husband at Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover. She usually waits until the last minute to finish her shopping.
She's not alone. In fact, the bulk of Christmas shopping takes place the week before Christmas. Last year, 34 percent of holiday sales were made between Dec. 17 and Dec. 24.
But even sales during this final week weren't enough to give retailers a much-needed boost. Sales at stores open at least one year rose 1.7 percent last week from the year-earlier period, according to a Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd. and UBS Warburg report.
"It's been extremely slow," said Sharice Saunders, assistant manager at Nine West in Arundel Mills. "It has been [slow] since Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving.
Overall, holiday sales are expected to reach $209 billion for November and December 4 percent above last year's, according to the National Retail Federation.
Louis and Joyce Yates of Mitchell-ville, Md., headed to Arundel Mills at 7 a.m. yesterday, unaware that shops at the mega-shopping center would not open for another two hours.
They walked around the mall until the stores opened but found that even then the center wasn't getting packed with patrons.
"The mall is not as crowded as we thought it would be," Mrs. Yates said. The husband-and-wife team, packages and bags in hand, finished their shopping by noon.
Shopping the day before Christmas is nothing new for Danielle Hardy, who was searching for gifts for her two nephews and mother yesterday at Arundel Mills. KB Toys, which had some bare shelves and toys thrown on the floor, was the Baltimore resident's last stop.
"The pickings are slim," said Miss Hardy, who had no idea what gifts she would be purchasing. "I'm playing it by ear."
At Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery in Bethesda, shoppers said they were surprised to find the center relatively quiet at 11 a.m.
Tom Heaney of Gaithersburg was one of 20 last-minute shoppers waiting in line to have all seven of his wife's presents wrapped.
"I always say I'll go earlier, but it wasn't bad this morning," Mr. Heaney said. "The stores weren't crowded, they had everything in stock that I was looking for, and it's shockingly been a pretty stress-free shopping day."
Some shoppers said they were cutting back on the number of gifts. Matt Sughrue of Alexandria said he was exchanging fewer gifts with his three siblings.
"We're taking turns on who gives who what gift to make our luggage lighter since we're all traveling by air," Mr. Sughrue said, holding up three bags from Nordstrom, Claire's and Waldenbooks.
"I've focused this year on having sales associates find one really nice gift for people rather than try to get a bunch of OK gifts that really aren't what family members want," he said.
Consumers are expected to spend about $650 this year on holiday gifts, decorations, cards, candy and food up slightly from $632 last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

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