- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Shoppers eager to redeem gift cards, exchange unwanted presents and stock up on discounted holiday decorations for next year flocked to area retailers yesterday.

At Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, department stores opened at 6 and 7 a.m. to accommodate the day-after-Christmas rush, while the rest of the mall opened at 9 a.m.

“There was a crowd waiting out there,” said Betty Petersen, who opened the doors at Williams-Sonoma. “They literally walked in the front door and made a straight beeline for the sales tables in back.”

Retail trade groups cited several reasons why they expected this year’s day-after-Christmas sales to be especially busy.

“There are two factors over last year: Gift cards are playing more of a role in the holiday season and the fact that we have such a late Hanukkah this year,” said Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Rachel Moen and Michael Coyle of Springfield woke up at 5:15 to hit the sales. After using a $100 gift card to purchase a Columbia ski jacket at Hecht’s, the two made their way to Best Buy in Fair Lakes, where they bought a Canon digital camera with a $300 gift card.

“Everything we buy the day after Christmas is with gift cards,” said Ms. Moen, 30.

Mr. Coyle, 23, said Dec. 26 is the best day to redeem gift cards.

“The deals are better the day after Christmas — everybody’s got to shed inventory,” he said.

The NRF predicts gift-card sales, which totaled $17.34 billion in 2004, to net $18.5 billion this year. Patrice Duker, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, credits the climb to the fact that more retailers are offering the cards, which provide flexibility for “those hard-to-buy-for people.”

At Hecht’s, which held an early bird sale from 6 to 10 a.m., lines of people wrapped around registers throughout the store.

“It’s very, very busy,” said cashier Margaret Deng as she restocked her cash drawer for the second time in two hours.

The day after Christmas is one of the biggest days for returning merchandise, Mrs. Duker said, because shoppers have an incentive to return unwanted gifts as soon as they can.

“Part of it is some folks want to return right away because they want to make sure if the item is still there they can make the exchange, especially sizewise,” she explained.

According to an NRF survey of 7,128 shoppers, 49 percent of gift givers this year enclosed receipts with their gifts, up from 47.6 percent in 2004.

For many post-Christmas shoppers, the closing of this year’s holiday season means it’s time to start planning for next year. At Hallmark — where holiday merchandise was selling for 50 percent off — a 21-person checkout line made it difficult to move through the store.

“It’s kind of like a game for me,” said Tammy Marquardt of Centreville as she used her foot to inch a bag full of discounted wooden snowmen closer to the register. “By the end of the week, I’ll have all my decorations for next year.”

Earlier Ms. Marquardt, 43, talked two Starbucks stores into selling her their holiday decorations, which she plans to use to decorate her office next year.

The fact that Dec. 26 fell on a weekday this year probably contributed to a spike in the number of shoppers, Mrs. Duker said.

“On weekends, you’ll go to religious services, or you’ll spend time with family. Since this year it’s falling on a Monday and the fact most companies are observing the Christmas holiday on Monday, it will certainly be a busy shopping day,” Mrs. Duker said.

Some shoppers said long lines and pushy bargain-hunters tainted their experience.

“It’s disappointing,” said Herndon resident Leslie Roddy, 49, who went to Hecht’s with her 17-year-old daughter Regina. By the time the two had waited 30 minutes to buy a pair of jeans, the 10 a.m. deadline for using early-bird coupons had passed.

“I like the hustle and bustle of the mall, but this is too much,” Regina said.

But as the crowds marched on, it was clear that many shoppers embraced the pandemonium.

“It’s something we’ve always done together the day after Christmas,” said Barbara Vetter, 34, of Bristow, Va.

Mrs. Vetter and her sisters, Deborah Zientek, 36, and Shannon Munro, 31, stopped to load up their car after an early morning visit to Target in Fair Lakes before going back out for more.

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