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E-commerce brings cheer to uncertain retail season

Predicting holiday spending is never easy. During last

Predicting holiday spending is never easy. During last year's holiday period, overall sales were strong, but retailers' profits were eroded because they had to do a lot of discounting to get shoppers to spend, particularly during the final weeks before Christmas. (Nov. 13, 2011) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

E-commerce is injecting excitement into a holiday shopping season characterized by bargain hunting and last-minute purchases, a new report says.

Retail spending online from Nov. 1 to Dec. 21 totaled $38.7 billion, a 16 percent increase versus the same period in 2011, according to online researcher comScore. The five-day workweek starting with "free shipping Monday" on Dec. 17 and ending Dec. 21 notched a growth rate of 53 percent, the company said.

"We typically do not see such heavy spending this late in the season, but the fact that free shipping day occurred on a Monday, combined with the fact that so many retailers extended their promotions into the middle of the week -- with guaranteed shipping by Christmas -- helped deliver an encouraging late-season surge," comScore chairman Gian Fulgoni said in a statement.

Among the companies trying to drum up business online and in stores was tween clothing retailer Justice, whose parent company, Ascena Retail Group, is based in Suffern. Justice was trumpeting an end-of-season clearance online valid through Tuesday and in stores starting Wednesday.

Meanwhile, last-minute shoppers in the Hudson Valley and around the country swarmed to stores Monday as Christmas approached in what analysts described as a "nail-biter" for retailers.

C. Britt Beemer, chairman and chief executive of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C., said consumers' determination to get a bargain and an overhang of last-minute shoppers made for a tough retail climate.

"It's been a challenging season," he said. "I'd describe this as a nail-biter."

In the final analysis, Beemer said he expects holiday retail sales to be up 1.8-2.8 percent, but the late shopping surge injects considerable uncertainty.

At Macy's in Manhattan, shopper Maureen Whyte, 33, was picking up stocking stuffers for her children but also was giving them notice that some toys will have to wait until she can snare them at after-Christmas sale prices.

"I told them, 'Whatever Mommy didn't get you, you'll get after this week,' " she said, noting that her children, ages 5 and 10, are fine waiting as long as they know they eventually will get their toys.

More than one in five shoppers surveyed Saturday night said they needed to shop on Friday and Saturday to get their Christmas buying substantially finished, Beemer said. An additional 10 percent surveyed said they thought they would finish their shopping on Sunday.

A Consumer Reports survey found a similar trend, with two-thirds of those surveyed saying they hadn't finished their shopping at the end of last week, and an estimated 17 million people expected to still be shopping Monday.

One of those last-minute shoppers was Angela Jones of Yonkers, who was buying gifts for friends and family at the Cross County Shopping Center on Sunday.

"I am totally a last-minute Christmas shopper," she said. "I'm shopping for everybody today, and I'm not even close to done yet!"

To accommodate last-minute shoppers, retailers were stretching their hours. For instance, the Macy's stores in White Plains and Yonkers were scheduled to remain open 24 hours until Monday night.

Keeping a lid on spending in the Northeast were stubbornly high levels of unemployment and the impact of superstorm Sandy, Beemer said. Sixteen percent of consumers in the region affected by Sandy said they would have to cut spending on gifts in the aftermath of the storm.

Still, at least some shoppers caught the holiday spirit.

Lucia Rodriguez of New York City said that her visit to the Guess store in the Cross County Shopping Center was part of a marathon shopping spree.

"I've been shopping all day," she said. "I feel like I've bought everything in the store! I was just going to buy one watch for my sister, but I know my other sister is going to be jealous, so I came back to buy two!"

Though online activity accounted for 21.4 percent of buying visits for the week that ended Dec. 15, according to consumer researcher The NPD Group, that share was expected to shrink at the end of the holiday shopping season, chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen said in a report. For the week that ended Dec. 15, 57 percent of U.S. consumers shopped at brick-and-mortar retail stores, an increase of 1 percentage point from the prior week.

A report by ShopperTrak, which gauges activity in retail stores, said that the unusually long 32-day interval between Black Friday -- the Friday after Thanksgiving -- and Christmas prompted shoppers to put off purchases.

With the last-minute rush, ShopperTrak predicted that foot traffic in retail stores will increase 2.8 percent over 2011 and that sales will climb by about 2.5 percent, down from the 3.3 percent forecast in September. Chicago-based ShopperTrak attributed the lowered forecast to heavily discounted merchandise and the impact of Sandy.

With The Associated Press and News12

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