Forget Tiffany’s, Cartier or FAO Schwarz. For many last-minute Christmas shoppers in Western New York, gas stations and convenience stores will be the destination of choice.
Despite Christmas commercials that have been airing since September, retailers that opened doors on Thanksgiving, Black Friday sales that started the day after Halloween and marathon extended store hours, there are still plenty of stragglers who will shop for Christmas gifts as late as Christmas Day itself.
Thanks to those procrastinators, gas stations and convenience stores count Christmas Eve and Christmas among their busiest days. With most traditional retailers closing early or not open at all, convenience stores are shoppers’ last chance to find the gifts they missed.
In years past, hapless last-minute shoppers found themselves cobbling together Christmas gifts from lottery tickets, candy, cosmetics and anything else that could pass as a present. Now, they can choose from stuffed animals, LED watches, even drones.
That’s right, 7-Eleven sells remote-controlled flying robot helicopters that can retail for up to $99.
After years of serving frenzied holiday procrastinators, the Dallas-headquartered chain now strategically exploits the opportunity by adding a variety of merchandise for its captive consumer audience. So does Noco Express shops, a Tonawanda-based chain of gas station convenience stores.
“Every year it gets bigger and we offer a more diverse selection,” said Justin Rokicki, marketing director at Noco. “Especially over the last five years.”
7-Eleven and Noco have long been pit stops for holiday chefs who forgot to grab a gallon of milk or some tin foil on the big day. And you can always count on them to keep a stash of Christmas crisis items, such as the batteries Santa forgot to include with a gift or the Scotch tape gift wrappers run out of at 2 a.m. But over the years, the stores have begun devoting several feet of shelf space to more traditional gift items desperate Christmas shoppers seek.
Noco has remote-controlled cars, stuffed animals, animal-themed winter hats and stuffed animals.
Got a “My Little Pony” fan on your list? How about a devoted follower of “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead”? 7-Eleven carries a line of stylized vinyl figures bearing the likeness of those shows’ favorite characters, plus ones fashioned after the minions from “Despicable Me” and every girl’s favorites, Anna and Elsa from “Frozen.”
There are also plug-and-play “water dance” lighted stereo speakers, DVDs and cellphones.
For the first time this year, 7-Eleven will also offer “Gifts to Go,” pre-wrapped presents such as spring-loaded bottle openers and retro, corded telephone receivers that can be bought in a flash and taken directly to a gift recipient without having to stop home for a gift bag. Gifts to Go run $7.99 apiece, or three for $20.
And though they’re no longer the only last-minute gift option, New York State lottery tickets are still popular. New York State has special holiday-themed scratch-off tickets in denominations up to $10 that come with decorative gift envelopes. Clerks report that customers tape lottery tickets to the outside of other wrapped Christmas presents in order to add that little something special, or will enclose the tickets in Christmas cards. Stores can increase lottery ticket sales up to fivefold on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, they said.
“Lottery sales are through the roof,” said Sherry Wightman, manager of a 7-Eleven store in Hamburg.
A common last-minute item is the hostess present – something many partygoers find themselves forgetting until mere moments before they’re expected at Christmas dinner. 7-Eleven and Noco Express have had decades to refine their hostess gift offerings – tins of gourmet caramel popcorn, special breads, cakes, boxed candies, holiday-brew craft beer, party platters with cheese and crackers – and they add to their repertoire every year. A favorite at Noco is something called Slim Lizzy’s cocktails, an 80-calorie beverage popular with women.
“Some people will grab a 12-pack of beer and put a bow on it,” said Jeff Mead, a Western New York district manager at 7-Eleven. “And we sell the bows, too.”
Gift cards, of course, are a top seller among holiday procrastinators. In fact, 80 percent of all gift card sales are done in December, retailers said, and sales accelerate faster as Christmas Day approaches. Convenience stores usually sell their own branded gift cards, along with prepaid Visa debit cards, and an assortment of other gift cards to be used at movie theaters, restaurants, stores and online retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.
Gift cards work out well for convenience stores, too. They don’t take up much room, don’t expire, can be shipped and restocked quickly, and – since they’re not loaded with a value amount until they are bought and activated – there are few drawbacks and little risk of being stuck with expensive overstock.
Ask anyone who works in retail and they will tell you there are four kinds of last-minute Christmas shoppers. There are the jolly elves who have completed their shopping but can’t get enough of the holiday magic; the wide-eyed, panicked soul still searching for the right gifts for people on their lists; the folks who thought they had everything in order but realized they forgot a key item (or person) on their list; and the defeated-looking fellows who seem to be waiting for someone to rescue them.
“As I sit here in the mall I can count 27 men walking alone looking dazed and six men in line at gift wrap,” said Russell Fulton, general manager at Eastern Hills Mall.