- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

Bargain hunters filled area malls yesterday to take advantage of after-Christmas sales, redeem gift cards and return unwanted presents. They weren’t disappointed as retailers slashed prices offering the deepest discounts yet of the holiday season.

Storefronts at Arundel Mills in Hanover, Md., advertised rock-bottom prices and heavy markdowns. At Old Navy, sweaters regularly $29.50 were priced at $9.99. Knit tops at the Gap Outlet were as low as $4.99, marked down from $16.99. All Christmas merchandise, from ornaments to cards, was 50 percent off at American Greetings.

Nicole Thomas, taking a break on a bench at the mega mall, said post-Christmas shopping is a tradition for her as she hunts for sales and gifts for next year.

“It seems like people aren’t shopping intensively until after Christmas,” the Temple Hills resident said.

Ms. Thomas, who was shopping with her three aunts, was pleased with the store discounts.

She was pleasantly surprised when she found some items were even marked down more when she went to check out.

“It’s almost free,” she said.

Retailers are expecting the coming week to play a critical role in their overall holiday sales.

Last year the week after Christmas accounted for 11.8 percent of sales and 10.6 percent in 2001, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Retailers are hoping post-Christmas shoppers, especially those redeeming gift cards, will help to boost sales.

C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C., said post-holiday sales will only help stores that are close to meeting their goals.

“If they’re far behind, you can’t have one week making up for the rest of the season,” he said.

Most retailers have reported modest sales gains from Thanksgiving to Christmas. High-end stores such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom have enjoyed robust sales this holiday season, while mid-priced department stores have fared the worst.

Even discounters like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have struggled with muted sales gains.

The world’s largest retailer said December sales at U.S. stores open at least a year will hit the low end of its sales forecast as last-minute holiday shoppers didn’t make up for a slow start to the season.

Wal-Mart and other retailers are banking on consumers to redeem gift cards, which were among the top-selling items this season.

Gift cards, which are expected to account for nearly 8 percent of all holiday sales, are not considered a sale until they are redeemed.

But not all consumers plan to use their gift cards immediately.

According to a recent America’s Research Group survey, almost 40 percent of about 800 consumers polled said they would redeem their cards in January, while 38.4 percent plan to redeem the cards immediately.

Close to 22 percent said that they plan to use their cards some time next year.

That’s a shift from years past, when more than 55 percent said they would use them immediately.

“I think a lot of people are going to wait to see how big the sales are,” Mr. Beemer said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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