NEW YORK – Holiday procrastinators are preparing to zoom through picked-over stores, grabbing discounted sweaters and can't-go-wrong gift cards. If they can get a parking spot, that is. But you won't hear retailers complaining.
For stores, this 11th-hour dash caps the best holiday season since 2007, and possibly the best ever. With Christmas falling on a Saturday this year, Friday is a holiday for most U.S. workers. That allowed shoppers to hit the stores first thing in the morning.
"I'm calling it Fantastic Friday, because I really do think it's going to be one of the busiest days of the year," said Marshal Cohen, chief fashion industry analyst with researcher NPD Group.
A strong Christmas Eve would round out a surprisingly successful holiday season for retailers. The National Retail Federation predicts that holiday sales will reach $451.5 billion this year, up 3.3 percent over last year. That would be the biggest year-over-year increase since 2006, and the largest total since sales hit a record $452.8 billion in 2007. A strong finish could even give 2010 the crown.
While both are heavy shopping days, Christmas Eve draws a different breed of buyer than Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season.
"Those who get up and brave the cold on Black Friday are usually looking for hot items, not only to buy gifts but to score something for themselves," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. "They're planners, and they map out what they want to buy."
Shoppers who come out on Christmas Eve, on the other hand, were either waiting for the biggest discounts or they didn't have the money to spend earlier, she said. Or they just tend to dilly-dally.
While many Black Friday shoppers relish the hunt, last-minute buyers are harried and focused on getting things done.
And true to stereotype, they are mostly men, said Dan Jasper, spokesman for Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Accordingly, stores push men's and women's sweaters in their circulars, while shoes and children's apparel take a back seat. Jewelry also tends to be a top last-minute gift item, though that category has been strong throughout the season.
E-commerce has driven much of the holiday's spending growth, as more Americans responded to online sales and free shipping offers. For the season to-date, $36.4 billion has been spent online, a 15.4 increase over last year, according to MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse.
Many people who postponed their shopping this year blame busy schedules. The number of hours U.S. workers are putting in at the office each week has been on the upswing since the official end of the recession in June 2009, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That leaves less time for shopping during the week.
Vivian Lowe, 34, works for an ad agency in Atlanta and didn't start her shopping until Wednesday. "It just caught up with me this year," she said.
She spent Thursday at the Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta and plans to hit Target on Christmas Eve because she sees it as a one-stop shop.
Procrastinators like Lowe shouldn't hit too many snags. Store inventories are not as depleted as last year, when merchants scared about having too many leftovers saw some empty shelves near the end of the season. But shoppers are not seeing the 75-percent-off-everything fire sales that characterized the 2008 holiday.
Still, many stores are offering discounts this week. Express's store at the Manhattan Mall in midtown had a huge yellow sign in its storefront window promoting an "end of the season 50 percent sale" on selected items.
Macy's is offering 30 percent off some bags and jewelry, while the Gap is applying that markdown to everything in the store. At CVS, there are buy-two-get-one free deals on bath-and-body gift sets and discounts on a 7-inch LCD TV and DVD player combo.
Ron and Lisa Johnson of Indianapolis came to Circle Center Mall Thursday morning just to buy boots for their 20-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn Shirar. Nearly four hours later, they sat on a bench with a pile of bags from Nine West, H&M and Forever 21.
"We haven't found anything that wasn't on sale," Lisa said.
Retailers say shoppers have mostly stuck to a big lesson taught by the recession: using cash, not credit. Toward the end of the season, they pulled out the plastic a little more often, but that's normal. Overall, analysts consider the increased spending a sign more consumers have paid down debt and have cash to spend.
Besides sales, retailers are finding other ways to accommodate procrastinators.
Many stores, including Best Buy Co., let shoppers order online and then pick up the merchandise at the store. Best Buy's deadline to order on its website is 3 p.m. Christmas Eve, and most stores close at 6 p.m.
Amy Adoniz, the store manager at Best Buy's store in Union Square in Manhattan, said that as of midday Thursday, 16 people were in line to pick up items ordered on its website.
7-Eleven convenience stores, always handy in a pinch, will be open all day on Christmas and are expanding their gift-worthy offerings by stocking a broader selection of wines, hand-held games and stuffed animals.
Toys R Us plans to keep its doors open until 10 p.m. Friday, but is taking a different tack from the discounters, raising prices on some popular toys to take advantage of shoppers' desperation. It bumped up the prices of the Leapster Explorer hand-held learning device by $20 and the Nerf Stampede Blaster by $5, said Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst at BMO Capital Markets.
"Retailers are realizing that rather than give these toys away, they can actually make a profit on them," Johnson said.
If all else fails, shoppers will fall back on gift cards. Spending on the plastic vouchers is expected to reach nearly $25 billion this holiday season, 5 percent more than last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Michelle Jose, marketing manager for White Marsh Mall in White Marsh, Md., says that more than half of the mall's gift card sales for the entire year are made in the last three days before Christmas and she expects "strong sales to finish up the holiday."
Ian McCarty, 26, who lives in Atlanta and works for Emory Healthcare, was finding good deals at Lenox Square Mall on Thursday, but had trouble finding the right sizes. He picked up a gift card at Gap and was on his way to Talbot's to pick another one up for his mother.
"It's the easiest thing to do," he said.
AP Retail Write Mae Anderson in Atlanta and AP Business Writer Tom Murphy in Indianapolis contributed to this story.