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Shoppers Return to Malls, Looking for Deals

Shoppers across the country returned to malls Saturday, rummaging through thinly stocked shelves hunting for deals, next year's Christmas gifts and, for most, gifts for themselves.

Source: Karin Bultje

Retailers made a push to woo gift-card-toting shoppers by slashing prices and offering doorbuster deals often reserved for the day after Thanksgiving.

Diana Mayfield, a 56-year-old business trainer from Jacksonville, Ill., managed to get two Christmas ornaments for $6, marked down from $28. She was out before dawn Saturday while visiting family in Maryland, scouring for next year's Christmas gifts.

"It's 60 percent off original, so that's pretty good," she said while eyeing a rack of sweaters. "I usually get my electronics the day after Thanksgiving, and we get clothes and paper goods the day after Christmas."

Knowing shoppers would likely spend less, merchants carefully managed inventory this Christmas. That meant on Dec. 26, some store shelves were practically empty.

Weather also could complicate things again this weekend, as a strong snow storm swept across portions of the nation's midsection and rain dampened the mid-Atlantic through New England.

"I think the big concern on all retailers' mind today will be the factor of the weather," said Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears and Kmart stores. "But it seems so far, customers have a good resolve to get out. ... You've got a lot of thrifty shopers out today looking for great values."

Donna Brown, a 52-year-old hair dresser from Seaford, Del., visited The Centre at Salisbury on Tuesday but returned Saturday to find few pairs of the $11.99 pajamas she'd been eyeing at J.C. Penney , which opened at 5 a.m.

"Now there's nothing," she said. "Everything's been picked over."

In New Jersey, Bernaden Demesyeux wasn't having much luck, either, despite arriving at her local mall just before 6:30.

"I was trying to find a dress coat for my husband, but didn't find anything," she said after more than an hour of shopping. "Everything is the same prices as before."

The week after Christmas is big business for retailers, making up 15 percent of sales last year, according research from ShopperTrak, which tracks sales and traffic at more than 50,000 outlets.

Thanks to a fluke in the calendar, merchants have a whole weekend to entice shoppers immediately after Christmas. That meant many stores were offering expanded hours Saturday and extra deals hoping crowds of gift-card-toting shoppers would snap up goods.

To help their cause, retailers sent a barrage of e-mails to faithful shoppers in the past day. "Wasn't under the tree? Get it now at the Apple Store," read one from Apple

.

Walmart was offering half off toys and Toys R Us touted buy one, get one half-off offers. At Sears, customers could find coats for 70 percent off while some jeans were $10. And Gap's Old Navy brand was selling men's and women's jeans for $15 for the day and an e-mail encouraged shoppers to "redeem your gift cards today."

Gift card sales are not recorded until shoppers redeem them.

Retailers received a much-needed last-minute sales surge in the final days before Dec. 25, fueled by shoppers who delayed buying, waited for bigger discounts that never came or were slowed by last weekend's big East Coast snowstorm.

But now they're counting on the days after Christmas to perk up overall holiday sales in a season that looks like it's modestly better than last year's disaster.

The full holiday picture won't be known until merchants report December sales Jan. 7. But most expect merchants' fourth-quarter profits should be intact because they didn't press the panic button.

ShopperTrak is sticking to its prediction for a 1.6 percent gain, compared with a 5.9 percent drop a year ago.

The National Retail Federation expects that total retail sales will slip 1 percent, though some experts say that might be a bit too cautious. A year ago, they fell 3.4 percent by the trade group's calculations.

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