— By SALLY SEXTON
A second round of Christmas shopping began Thursday morning, as store parking lots gradually filled from people out seemingly searching out post-Christmas sales, making returns or using gift cards left by Santa.
Some people took advantage of big discounts on items like Christmas wrapping paper and lights to get an early start on next year.
Betsy Hickerson, of Willow Park, hit up Target to load up on Christmas wrapping paper.
“I got some for $1 a roll, so I think I’m all set for next year,” she said. “After this, I’m thinking about stopping at Best Buy to see if they have any deals.”
Store employees said that while business had picked up a bit, they expect even more people this weekend.
“We’ve had a lot of returns and people were buying mostly clothes and stuff,” Megan Williams, a jewelry expert at JCPenney, said.
“All of our Christmas stuff is about 70 percent off,” said Erica Avina, sales team manager at Belk.
Stores usually wait until after Christmas to offer discounts of up to 70 percent or more on holiday merchandise that didn’t sell. But Americans who are still worried about the economy have held tightly to their purse strings this year, and store sales have fallen for the past three consecutive weeks.
Retailers are feeling pressure to attract Americans into stores during what’s typically the busiest shopping period of the year. The two-month stretch that begins on Nov. 1 is important because retailers can make up to 40 percent of their annual sales during that time.
Sales at U.S. stores dropped 3.1 percent to $42.7 billion for the week that ended on Sunday compared with the same week last year, according to ShopperTrak, which tracks data at 40,000 locations. That follows a decline of 2.9 percent and 0.8 percent during the first and second weeks of the month, respectively.
Stores had a problem even getting Americans into stores, let alone getting them to spend. The number of shoppers fell 21.2 percent during the week that ended on Sunday, according to ShopperTrak.
Karen McDonald, a spokeswoman at Taubman Centers, which owns or operates 28 malls, estimated that business for the week that ended Sunday was unchanged to mid-single digit percentage growth compared with a year ago. McDonald said business “was just OK.”
Overall, ShopperTrak estimates that holiday sales at stores so far are up 2 percent to $218.4 billion compared with the same period last year. That’s below the 2.4 percent forecast for the two-month period, but the company is standing by that estimate with a little over a week left before the season ends.
The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail group, also said it’s sticking with its forecast that sales in stores and online will be up 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.