12/24/2011 11:17 EST | Updated 02/23/2012 05:12 EST

Last-minute shoppers crowd into US stores to top off strong holiday shopping season

Last-minute shoppers hit stores on Christmas Eve in a surge that is expected to top off an unexpectedly strong holiday shopping season in the U.S.

Among them was Len Boswell. At a CVS drugstore in Decatur, Georgia, on Saturday morning, he picked up candy and a neck pillow for his wife. He had started shopping at 6 a.m. at Starbucks, where he bought a mug. He planned to be finished shopping well before his Christmas Eve dinner at 6 p.m.

"I should have done this a couple of weeks ago," acknowledges Boswell, 68, a director of book publishing at a non-profit.

Stores are expected to ring up $469.1 billion during the holiday season, and the final week before Christmas can account for up to 20 per cent of sales for the season. Retailers tempered their expectations heading into the season because Americans were still worried about the weak economy. But sales have been so brisk during the two-month period that the National Retail Federation, the industry's big trade group, upgraded its sales forecast a full percentage point to 3.8 per cent.

"We're seeing good traffic, good sales, not over-the-top sales, but a nice 3 per cent to 4 per cent increase over last year." said Sherif Mityas, a partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm. "Even with all the bad news and hesitancy in terms of the economy, consumers are still opening up their wallets more than last year, which is good news."

But at a time when Americans are worried about the weak economy, retailers weren't willing to leave anything to chance on the last day to shop before Christmas.

Macy's and Toys R Us were open for 24 hours in the days leading up to Christmas. At malls, Abercrombie & Fitch offered a blanket 50 per cent off on all items while J. Crew and Madewell offered 30 per cent off. And promotional emails from retailers were up 34 per cent from a year ago, according to Responsys, which tracks email activity from more than 100 merchants.

"They're clearly putting best foot forward on promotions right now," said John Morris, analyst at BMO Capital Markets, who estimates sale activity is up about 7 per cent compared with last year, taking into account the level of mark downs and the amount of goods marked down.

"The key here is the last few days and week after Christmas," for retailers, Mityas said. "How much they can capture that customer for their second or third trip. Getting that last procrastinator trip is great but now you want them to come back in for returns, gift cards, and spend a little bit more." That will mean "getting that extra percentage point of sales that happens the last six or seven days of December

The sales and incentives — or plain old procrastination— are drawing at least some last-minute shoppers in on the final days.

About 150,000 shoppers were expected at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, on Friday, a 50 per cent increase from a normal day shopping.

"We're getting good foot traffic, a lot of people seem to be on a mission," said Dan Jasper, Mall of America vice-president of public relations, on Friday. He added that the new release of Nike Air Jordan XI Retro Concords boosted traffic. About 8,000 people were lined up for the shoe when Mall of America opened its doors at 6 a.m.


Mae Anderson reported from Atlanta, Georgia.