Retailers Usher In Post-Christmas Business Amid Signs Of Holiday Gloom

NEW YORK (AP) - With the pre-Christmas season turning out to be unimpressive despite a last-minute sales surge, retailers are rolling out after-Christmas discounts, hoping bargain shoppers and gift-card splurgers can help salvage the season.

Target Corp., the nation's No. 2 retailer, warned late Monday that its sales at established stores might decline for December, while a broad gauge of consumer spending released by Mastercard Inc., which includes estimates for spending by check and cash, showed a modest 2.4 percent increase for the holiday season.

So stores are once again trying to position themselves to extend the holiday season.

Toys "R" Us Inc., which planned to open at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, two hours earlier than last year, is offering 40 percent price cuts on all MP3 and iPod accessories. Macy's Inc. is offering 50 percent to 75 percent off cashmere sweaters, while Saks Fifth Ave. cut prices on fur coats by 40 percent to 60 percent.

In Lisbon, Conn., Maggie Challinor joined about 20 shoppers huddled for warmth in the vestibule of Kohl's department store awaiting its 6 a.m. opening. Challinor, of Norwich, Conn., planned to buy a coat with a Christmas gift card she received from her husband.

Gift cards helped the family keep to their Christmas budget, she said. "We spent less. We really watched for sales."

Store manager Joe St. Rock said the store sold about $500,000 in gift cards in December, and many would be redeemed in the next two or three weeks. He said the store had a good Christmas season, with practical items like clothing the best sellers.

"All the gloom and doom that's been predicted didn't seem to pan out, at least not here at Kohl's in Lisbon, anyway," St. Rock said.

Samantha Williams, with her bundled 7-week-old daughter, arrived early Wednesday to exchange baby clothes. Waking early was better than fighting lines later, she said.

Barbara Gagne of Griswold, Conn., found a 55 blouse marked down to $11, which she bought after returning two pairs of pants.

"I'm going to be shopping now," Gagne said. "I'm here for the Shopper Wendell Davis was thinking way ahead, and picking up Christmas decorations at a 70 percent discount.

"I told my wife last night I'm going to get up and I'm going to go down to the store," he said. "I've never done this before."

The post-Christmas season has become more important with the increasing popularity of gift cards. Gift card sales are only recorded on retailers' balance sheet when cards are redeemed.

According to the National Retail Federation, consumers are expected to spend a total of $26.3 billion in gift cards this holiday season, up 42 percent from $18.5 billion in 2005.

ShopperTrak RCT Corp. said that the week after Christmas accounts for about 16 percent of total holiday sales.

"This is going to be a more important chunk of business than most people realize," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman at NRF.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research firm, agreed, noting that when the industry looks at the holiday results, they need to include January business.

"When we take a look at the results of this holiday retail season, it will be important to remember that the rules have changed and so should the way we read the success of the holiday," Cohen said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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