NEW YORK » It’s Black Friday, the Sequel. Stores are rolling out deals and expect to be swimming in shoppers on Christmas Eve as stragglers take advantage of a day off work. For retailers the last-minute rush caps the best year since 2007, and possibly ever.
With Christmas falling on a Saturday this year, Friday is a holiday for most U.S. workers. That lets shoppers hit the stores first thing in the morning.
"I’m calling it Fantastic Friday because I really do think it’s going to be one of the busiest days of the year," said Marshal Cohen, chief fashion industry analyst with researcher NPD Group.
A strong Christmas Eve would round out a surprisingly successful holiday season for retailers. The National Retail Federation predicts that holiday sales will reach $451.5 billion this year, up 3.3 percent over last year. That would be the biggest year-over-year increase since 2006, and the largest total since sales hit a record $452.8 billion in 2007. A strong finish could even give 2010 the crown.
While both are heavy shopping days, Christmas Eve draws a different breed of buyer than Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season.
"Those who get up and brave the cold on Black Friday are usually looking for hot items, not only to buy gifts, but to score something for themselves," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.
"They’re planners, and they map out what they want to buy."
Shoppers who come out on Christmas Eve, on the other hand, were either waiting for the biggest discounts or they did not have the money to spend earlier, she said. Or they just tend to dilly-dally.
While many Black Friday shoppers relish the hunt, last-minute buyers are harried and focused on getting things done.
And true to stereotype, they are mostly men, said Dan Jasper, spokesman for Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Accordingly, stores push men’s and women’s sweaters in their circulars, while shoes and children’s apparel take a back seat. Jewelry also tends to be a top last-minute gift item, though that category has been strong throughout the season.
E-commerce has driven much of the holiday’s spending growth. For the season, $28.36 billion has been spent online, a 12 increase over last year. Online shoppers spent $900 million last weekend alone.
Many people who postponed their shopping this year blame busy schedules. The number of hours U.S. workers are putting in at the office each week has been on the upswing since the official end of the recession in June 2009, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That leaves less time for shopping during the week.
Vivian Lowe, 34, works for an ad agency in Atlanta and did not start her shopping until Wednesday. "It just caught up with me this year," she said.
She spent yesterday at the Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta and plans to hit Target on Christmas Eve because she sees it as a one-stop shop.
Procrastinators like Lowe should not hit too many snags. Store inventories are not as depleted as last year, when merchants scared about having too many leftovers saw some empty shelves near the end of the season. But shoppers are not seeing the 75-percent-off-everything fire sales that characterized the 2008 holiday.
Still, many stores are offering discounts this week. Express’ store at the Manhattan Mall in midtown had a huge yellow sign in its storefront window promoting an "end of the season 50 percent sale" on selected items.