- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

Procrastinators hunting for last-minute gifts packed area malls and stores yesterday, a Christmas present for retailers whose sales have been modest thus far this shopping season.

With yesterday being a federal holiday and many offices closed, consumers had extra incentive to procrastinate in addition to the usual end-of-season discounts.

And the steady stream of business yesterday may be the break retailers needed.

“This could be one of the busiest Christmas Eves we’ve ever had,” said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation (NRF), an industry trade group.

While weather in the Washington area was not a factor yesterday, it likely will hurt the bottom line for retailers in the Midwest, which was blasted by a winter storm Thursday.

The NRF projects holiday sales will increase 4.5 percent this year to $219.9 billion.

As of last Sunday, the average consumer had completed nearly 82 percent of holiday shopping. However, 12 million consumers had not even started shopping, according to the NRF.

Many of them flocked to Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery in Bethesda yesterday. The parking lots were filled with motorists — some cheery and others not so jolly — stalking shoppers heading to their cars in scarce spaces.

Inside, the mall was bustling with people, too. Some shoppers were eyeing the popular IPods at the Apple Store. In the 15-person line at KB Toys, customers were snapping up everything from dolls and games to remote-control cars.

Jewell Thornton, said she shops on Christmas Eve because she’s a procrastinator, but it also helps put her in the holiday spirit.

With numerous bags at her feet, she was waiting to meet friends so she could unload the gifts in the car and start again with free hands. They had been at the mall since around 9 a.m.

“Coming early is very important,” she said. “It’s the method to my last-minute shopping.”

The line at the mall’s gift-wrapping station was long, filled mostly with men.

Dan Pollock had about a dozen gifts to be wrapped although he had done all of his shopping earlier in the month. Each year, he brings his gifts back to the mall to be wrapped because the proceeds go to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International.

“I’m a last-minute wrapper,” the Germantown resident said. “I’m not frantically running around shopping.”

The service costs on average $3 to $8 per package depending on the size. The wrappers expected about 1,200 gifts to pass through their station yesterday.

Joan Tappan, with 9-year-old daughter Hannah, was crouched by the mall’s railing to put together a last-minute gift for Hannah’s hairdresser at the Robert Lewis Salon. Except for that gift, Mrs. Tappan said, her shopping was finished long before yesterday.

“But I can tell you my husband will be here all afternoon,” she said. “He is forever a last-minute shopper.”

Gary Dugger of Northeast Washington was resting against a banister overlooking the lower level of the mall, while his wife, Gail, visited another store. Unlike his wife, Mr. Dugger had put off all his shopping until yesterday.

“I’ve been quite busy today,” said Mr. Dugger, who arrived at the mall around 8:30 a.m. By noon he was finished.

The only thing he had left to do in the afternoon was bring his 4-year-old son shopping for a gift for Mom.

“I’m all for teaching kids at an early age that there’s a lot of joy in giving,” he said.

Karen Hopkins of Baltimore went to Arundel Mills in Hanover, Md., to pick up a few last-minute stocking stuffers and ended up buying more than she had anticipated.

“Sometimes you can’t help yourself,” said Miss Hopkins, who is giving mostly cash and gift cards this year.

Consumers will spend $17.34 billion on gift cards this season — up $100 million from last year, according to the NRF.

But waiting until the last minute did have its downside.

Michael Gilliam of the District had to visit several malls Thursday and Arundel Mills yesterday in search of the V.Smile TV Learning System for his daughter.

“That must have been the hot item this year,” Mr. Gilliam said. “Nobody has it.”

But Mr. Gilliam did not leave empty-handed — he hefted several bags from KB Toys. His friend, Malik Carter, also of Washington, had even more bags from the toy store.

Mr. Carter usually waits until Christmas Eve to do his shopping.

“It’s the only way I get in the spirit,” he said. “I like seeing people rushing and fighting for parking spaces.”

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