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Desperate hours: Stores stay open late

With sales weak, merchants offer big discounts, extended shopping and a lot of gimmicks.

December 19, 2007|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Don't worry if you haven't started your Christmas shopping yet. You'll have plenty of time to get it all done before Tuesday as long as you don't need to sleep.

J.C. Penney Co. stores will be open until midnight Friday and Saturday. At Mervyns, you'll be able to keep buying until 2 a.m. all weekend, and the chain will throw in $10 gift cards for the first 200 people through the doors each day at 5 a.m. In case you have nothing else to do, Kmart will stage a nonstop 64-hour sale beginning at 6 a.m. Saturday at most of its stores around the nation.

The record may be set on the East Coast, where many Macy's stores in the Greater New York area will remain open for 83 consecutive hours. The Macy's in Queens Center Mall will unlock its doors at 7 a.m. Thursday and not close them until 6 p.m. Monday -- 107 hours later.

"There's a lot of desperation out there," said Candace Corlett, a principal at WSL Strategic Retail, a strategy firm. "This is a weird, wacky holiday."

And not necessarily a happy one for retail companies.

The International Council of Shopping Centers said Monday that sales last week were up just 2.1% in the weakest year-over-year advance since July as "storms and a procrastinating consumer" got in the way. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, shaved his holiday forecast this week, saying sales at stores open a year or more would rise 1.8%, not 2%. It was his lowest forecast in a decade.

Now, last-minute shoppers are turning December into a real nail-biter.

Consumer Reports' final shopping poll of the season found that one-third of respondents hadn't bought anything as of Dec. 9 and that 34% didn't expect to finish acquiring gifts until Christmas Eve.

Many stores will close relatively early Dec. 24, but until then people "are going to be tearing through the stores to buy stuff," said Greg Daugherty, the publication's executive editor.

Or maybe they won't. Foot-dragging isn't the only affliction slowing shoppers this year.

High gasoline prices, the slowing housing market, rising mortgage payments and a gyrating stock market have taken their toll. The cost of filling gas tanks particularly has "sucked up the discretionary money from so many wallets," Corlett said.

It has made a difference for Diane Miller of Costa Mesa. "When I bought my car a year and a half ago, it cost $40 to $50 to fill it up. Now, it's over $70," said Miller, a finance company supervisor whose family has "phased back" spending because of the economy.

At Santa Monica Place, business has been so slow that some merchants said they would accept prices lower than those on the tags. At the women's clothing store Deena Han, where some dresses were marked down 75% to 80%, manager Kim Choi said even that was negotiable.

"If customers really want something, and they can't afford it, maybe I'll give them a discount," she said. "They say, 'How about 100% off?' "

To make the most of the around-the-clock sale this weekend, Kmart circulars will include coupons for an additional 10% off apparel purchases made between midnight and 6 a.m. "It's an additional incentive to come during the overnight hours," a spokeswoman said.

Wal-Mart said it would have more registers open than ever this week to move shoppers through lines briskly. It also has put 18 kiosks in most of its stores to make it easier to buy gift cards. Late last week it launched a "Help a Guy Buy" feature on its website to help men figure out what to get for their girlfriends.

The Glendale Galleria is trying something new too. It introduced a singing, shimmying Elvis Santa to go beard-to-boot with the Beverly Center's Hunky Santa, a looker accompanied this year by Candy Cane Girls dancers.

"We kind of drew the battle lines, so to speak: Elvis versus Hunky Santa," said Donald Wilson, a spokesman for the Glendale Galleria, which posted a video of its Elvis on YouTube. "We're thinking outside the box now to attract shoppers."

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leslie.earnest@latimes.com

Times staff writer Alana Semuels contributed to this report.

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