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Final push is on for retailers to lure last-minute shoppers

With six children and 13 grandchildren, Betty Nowak does a lot of Christmas shopping. Usually, she’s one of those got-it-together grandmas others envy – the kind who has her presents wrapped and put away by the week after Thanksgiving.

This year, however, things have not gone so smoothly. While double-checking her list, she realized there was still some last-minute shopping – two gift cards, a pair of gloves and a pair of slippers – and about 48 hours to do it.

Another snag happened when a friend of the family unexpectedly dropped off a box of candy and some cookies. Nowak will have to find something for her now, too.

This is the first Christmas in many years she has found herself running behind, and she doesn’t like the feeling.

“I think I’m losing it,” Nowak joked. “The whole reason I start early is because I hate rushing around at the last minute. Christmas falls on Dec. 25 every year. It’s not like it’s a surprise.”

Plenty of shoppers in Western New York and across the country are feeling just like Nowak. With Christmas a mere two days away, the countdown is on. Retailers and shoppers alike are in a frenzy, both with the same goal: get merchandise off shelves as quickly as possible.

Brick-and-mortar retailers will make their most desperate push of the year to capture any cash that might be left in consumers’ wallets. The beat-the-clock atmosphere pays off for consumers and stores alike. Consumers get to take advantage of some of the best deals of the year, and retailers have a captive (and not altogether rational) pool of shoppers whose only objective is to spend, spend, spend.

“This is what mall retailers and mall managers wait for all year,” said Russ Fulton, 36-year retail veteran and general manager at Eastern Hills Mall. “It’s those last few days when it’s too late to order online and still have something to hand out on Christmas morning.”

Sure, stores see their second-highest consumer traffic volume the day after Christmas, according to analysts at ShopperTrak. But with the big day in the rearview mirror by Dec. 26, the only way retailers can create enough urgency to motivate shoppers to spend is to cut prices to the bone. Reducing profits is never a retailer’s first choice, but it beats getting stuck with loads of inventory that could sit on shelves throughout January and February, the leanest months for stores.

That’s not to say promotional prices aren’t sizzling right now. Last-minute shoppers will find themselves rewarded with deep discounts almost everywhere. Express has lopped 50 percent off everything in its stores. Bon-Ton shoppers can get $25 off a $50 purchase. At JC Penney, Macy’s and Sears, 50 percent to 70 percent discounts are commonplace, and shoppers can score additional discounts if they use their store credit card.

Sales kicked into high gear Sunday. Retailers waited until the day after so-called Super Saturday, the busiest shopping day of the year, to roll out their best pricing. That’s because this year’s Super Saturday fell in such a way that consumers still had time to order gifts online and have them delivered by Christmas. Now, brick-and-mortar stores are competing only with one another.

“Holiday promotions are in full swing,” said Sarah Graf, marketing director at Walden Galleria.

Retailers also have been putting their digital mailing lists to deft use, the most clever of them emphasizing the ticking clock.

Amazon sent out reminders that Monday was the last day for Prime members to use their free two-day shipping privileges and still take delivery by Christmas Eve. Toys R Us offered 50 percent off expedited shipping. But for the most part, the online ship has sailed.

Target’s email blasts told shoppers that “last-minute has its benefits,” and hawked promotional codes, free gift cards with purchase and percentage off discounts in stores.

“Fa-la-la-last minute gifts! Get ’em now in store!” urged Kohl’s.

And retailers that offer ship-to-store services pushed the option hard.

“It’s not too late for store pickup. You’ll have it in the St. Nick of time!” Target’s website nudged.

Walmart reminded shoppers that some online orders could be delivered as quickly as the same day. The powerhouse retailer took its digital marketing another step further, using customers’ location data to highlight specific items that are in stock at their closest stores.

Walgreens highlighted its same-day photo developing services and all the gifts that can be made with them (calendars! enlargements!), letting shoppers know “there’s still time” to shop, but urged them to “pick up last-minute gifts today.”

Stores have extended hours, too. Kohl’s will remain open 24 hours per day until 6 p.m. Christmas Eve. Walgreens is open 8 a.m. to midnight Tuesday and Wednesday and from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Christmas Day. Best Buy will open from 7 a.m. to midnight Tuesday and from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Christmas Eve.

Gift cards, always a last-minute favorite, are expected to reach all-time sales highs this year. Shoppers are expected to spend an average of $172.74 on them, up from $163.16 last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Retailers know to expect high demand and usually do a good job of keeping sufficient inventory. But sales are up 3 percent so far this year, meaning some grocery, drug and convenience stores that carry gift cards for a variety of other stores and restaurants may run low in certain categories or denominations.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com