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Down To The Wire

Shoppers — some holding out for the best deals, others just not inspired to shop earlier — headed for the nation's malls and stores for last-minute gifts or gift cards the day before Christmas.

With shoppers delaying their holiday shopping even longer than last year, merchants depended even more on the final hours before Christmas and post-holiday business to salvage the season. The exceptions have been online retailers, sellers of consumer electronics, and luxury stores, which have continued to generate strong gains.

A longer season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a late Hanukkah and the lack of must-have items, except for gadgets such as Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360, flat-screen TVs and Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod digital music player, have all helped consumers prolong their shopping.

Scott Krugman of the National Retail Federation was predicting "an incredibly busy shopping day for retailers, perhaps the busiest Christmas Eve we've ever had."

He told's Lloyd de Vries, "As many consumers are not working, they're probably going to be out in the malls."

Krugman said Christmas Eve traditionally is not a big shopping day as consumers usually have other obligations.

"Typically, Christmas Eve falls out on a weekday, when most consumers are at work. Then they try to sneak in some shopping just before the end of the business day. With Christmas Eve falling out on a Saturday, they really have the full day to finish up all their shopping"

Meanwhile, merchants with a big presence in New York City, such as Saks Inc. and Bloomingdale's and Macy's parent, Federated Department Stores Inc., were hit by a three-day transit strike that left commuters too tired to shop.

"It was just a horrible time for them to have picked to go on strike," said Lachaun Brooks of New York. "It just wasn't fair."

Michael Gould, chairman of Bloomingdale's, said the flagship would not be able to recoup lost sales but the effect on the overall Bloomingdale's chain would be minimal. However, Saks Inc., which operates Saks Fifth Avenue, could take a bigger hit, analysts said.

Kathleen Waugh, a spokeswoman at Toys R Us Inc., said the strike had a negligible financial impact on the overall chain, and expects the company to meet holiday sales goals.

For plenty of national chains far away from New York City, it was also a last-minute waiting game.

"We are seeing nice traffic up to the last minute. We think (the holiday season) is going right down to the wire," said Gail Lavielle, a spokeswoman at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which confirmed Saturday its December sales growth forecast of 2 percent to 4 percent. The estimate is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year.

The final days before Christmas and post-holiday business, boosted in part by gift card sales, have become increasingly critical for retailers. Gift card sales are not recorded on a retailers' balance sheet until the cards are redeemed.

According to BigResearch, which conducted a poll for the National Retail Federation, consumers are expected to spend a total of $18.48 billion on gift cards this holiday season, up 6.6 percent from a year ago. But many stores and malls are reporting much bigger gains.

David J. Contis, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Santa Monica, California-based Macerich Co., which operates 80 malls nationwide, reported that gift card sales for his centers soared 65 percent on Friday from a year ago.

"I just think there is nothing to buy right now," he said.

There are more procrastinators out there with bigger crowds on Christmas Eve, compared with last year. Some shoppers just needed more time.

"This is the first time I am doing last-minute shopping," said Julie Hess of West Hartford, Connecticut, who was at the Shops at Evergreen Walk in South Windsor. "I guess it just slipped away from me this year."

For others it was just an annual ritual, particularly for men.

"I do it every year — it's tradition, no sense in shopping early," said Cross Cruise of Narragansett, Rhode Island, who was carrying a bag from teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co. that included clothes for himself. He had no idea what he would buy for others.

Although there were generous deals to be found, procrastinating also carries some big risks.

Sue Johnson of Charlotte, North Carolina, who was at the South Park Mall, wasn't having much luck hunting for an iPod.

"I've looked at a couple of places, Target and those places, but they're sold out," she said. "So, I'm going to the Apple store here."

Justin Rezendes, a store manager at Providence, Rhode Island, location of KB Toys Inc., said that anyone wanting popular toys such as the Xbox 360 might be out of luck.

"At this point, we're really empty right now," he said.

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