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Buying Time for Consumers

Retail: Some chains are trying to make shopping more convenient by offering longer hours, more clerks, online options.


Consumers will find the customary sales events, holiday trim and marketing hype when they converge on the nation's shopping centers Friday, the official start of the holiday shopping season.

This year, however, more and more retailers say they will seek a competitive edge by trying to make shopping more convenient for consumers.

Angling for time-pinched shoppers, more chains are providing an online Internet alternative to line-filled malls, and many retailers say they will have more shopping hours and sales clerks during peak shopping periods than last holiday season.

Some chains are offering more perks. For example, Banana Republic will offer San Franciscans who spend $100 or more at its flagship store on Saturdays and Sundays a free-ride home the rest of the holiday season.

Toys R Us is rolling out a gift registry system that allows kids to record their preferences, making it easier for distant grandparents to shop.

"It's a race to reach consumers who have less time to shop," said Kurt Barnard, a New Jersey-based retail economist.

The industry is looking forward to a brisk shopping season, with sales up 5% to 6% over last year. Retailers should do even better in Southern California, where home sales and job growth have outpaced the nation.

Discounters are expected to lead the industry, as they have through the year, by offering bargains on traditional gifts--apparel, toys or kitchen goods such as dishes. Specialty shops and online sites that sell personal computers, video games and home furnishings are also expected to benefit as low interest rates and a spate of mortgage refinancings give consumers extra cash.

"This is a Christmas that leans toward big-ticket spending: housing-related stuff such as furniture and appliances, big-screen TVs and computers," said Diane Swonk, an economist at Banc One. "It's not a traditional Christmas."

Department stores, however, continue to struggle, unable to fend off competition from discounters and specialty retailers. Already, the department stores are advertising discounts as much as 40% off.

Macy's, a unit of Federated Stores, will try to accommodate shoppers by operating its stores 30 hours more than last year between Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas Eve. Macy's says it will make decisions on expanded hours week to week.

And Bloomingdales, also a Federated unit, is trying to makes its stores easier to navigate.

"There will be less tables in the aisles," said Michael Gould, the chain's chief executive. "We're trying to make it easier for consumers to walk through stores. We're opening up the stores as best we can."

"The No. 1 issue in people's lives is how do I get more time for myself and my family," said Sheila Field, executive vice president of marketing at San Francisco-based Macy's West, which directs the chain's Western operations. "We want to make the shopping experience as convenient and as fast as possible."

And some analysts are optimistic about the prospects for department stores.

Ed Weller, an analyst at Sutro & Co. in San Francisco, predicts a 6% increase both in sales and earnings for department stores, noting that it will not be difficult for department store operators to improve on last season's performance.

"Department stores had excess inventory last season, but that won't be a problem this year," he said. "There should be fewer markdowns."

But analysts say middle-market department stores, such as Sears Roebuck & Co. and J.C. Penney, are likely to have a sluggish holiday. J.C. Penney said it expects sales at stores open at least a year to rise 1% to 3% this holiday, trailing Wal-Mart's forecasts for a gain of 4% to 6%.

With 28 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, consumers have one more day than last year to shop for the holiday season, which can generate as much as half a retailer's annual profit.

About 40% of shoppers expect to spend more this year, according to America's Research Group. That's the highest level since the research firm began its survey in 1993 and marks an increase from 36% last year. About 42% of the 1,000 people polled said they'll spend $751 to $2,500, up from 30% last year, the group said.

More of that spending will take place online. The number of households shopping on the Internet by year-end is forecast to almost double to about 9 million, said Forrester Research Inc. Macy's and department store competitors such as Nordstrom and Sears are touting their new Internet sales sites as time-saving options to store browsing.

"We'll absolutely break all sales records this year online," said Jolene McGowan, company spokeswoman for clothing retailer L.L. Bean Inc.

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