Holiday shoppers came out in droves Saturday to pick up last-minute presents and take advantage of deep seasonal discounts. Malls and department stores in major U.S. cities were packed during the day, giving retailers a beacon of hope that end-of-year sales could make up for the sluggish turnout this fall.
"It should be a pretty good day," Ramesh Swamy, a retail analyst at Deloitte, told Reuters. He pointed to plummeting gasoline prices -- now $2.43 a gallon on average, nationally -- as well as strong corporate profits as reasons why shoppers might shell out more money. "I think folks are willing to open up their purse a little bit more this year," Swamy told the news agency.
The Saturday before Christmas, dubbed "Super Saturday," marks the last major chance for U.S. retailers to snag shoppers' dollars before the end of the year. The day is expected to outstrip post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" as the biggest retail-generating day in 2014, ShopperTrak says. Black Friday was not the sales bonanza that storeowners were expecting, in part because shoppers opted to hit the malls days earlier.
Retail sales overall this season are growing slower than forecast, according to National Retail Federation data cited by Reuters. The industry group had expected sales to rise by 4.1 percent to $616.9 billion during November and December, though that target might still be achievable with a strong holiday finish.
"The numbers are lower than what people expected them to be so it will be interesting to see what happens in the final days of the holiday shopping season," Rishi Chhabra of First Data Corp., a payment technology company, told the Associated Press.
In an attempt to lure last-minute shoppers, retailers are rolling out sweeping discounts at scales not seen since the recession, AP noted. Macy's, Inc. and Toys "R" Us, Inc. are offering extended shopping hours, and Kohl's Corp., a department store, will open its stores for 132 straight hours until 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve -- a full 24 hours longer than in 2013.
But all the heavy discounting will come at a price for retailers, who risk chipping away at their margins by rolling out too many bargains. According to First Data, U.S. retail sales rose 1.8 percent from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15 compared with the same period in 2013, but the average transaction was flat at $73.85.
"Have you seen some of the deals today? They are hard to beat," Emma Clement, who was shopping at a Macy's in a Chicago area mall, told Reuters. "Most stores are offering over 50 percent off."
In Minnesota's Mall of America, however, the shopping day was more subdued. More than 1,000 people held a mass demonstration in the rotunda to protest police brutality, causing parts of the Bloomington, Minnesota, mall to temporarily shut down. After police in riot gear cleared the rotunda, other activists held "die-ins" in front of several stores, the Star Tribune newspaper reported.