Last-minute shoppers sparse in Sacramento malls

Despite heavy discounting and extended hours, retailers seemingly found little to cheer as the holiday shopping season drew to a close this week.

Foot traffic at Arden Fair mall on Tuesday more closely resembled a summer weekend than the day before Christmas. Retailers, hoping to draw last-minute shoppers, brought out the big guns – large red signs advertising 50 percent to 80 percent off.

Even so, shoppers hesitated.

Myra Flores, 22, waited until Christmas Eve to begin crossing off her list. The doctor’s assistant from Woodland said she is spending less this year, owing to the lackluster economy.

“I used to get two to three gifts per person. Now, it’s one gift with a $50 limit,” Flores said, as she left Sears holding a bag of UGG shoes.

With wages stagnant and the economy chugging along at a sluggish pace, retailers are struggling to score sales. The abbreviated holiday season, six days shorter than last year due to Thanksgiving falling on Nov. 28, dealt retailers another blow.

“We underwhelmed ourselves this year,” said Sally Hamilton, a business professor at Drexel University’s Sacramento campus. “The economy is improving, but it’s not exactly gangbusters.”

Nationwide, traffic was down 7.6 percent Saturday and 1.3 percent Sunday compared with last year, reported RetailNext, which tracks sales in brick and mortar stores. The weekend before Christmas is historically one of the largest for sales.

Tuesday morning, Jamey Thomas scrambled to wrap up his holiday shopping. The 42-year-old, making a trip to load bags onto his car, was surprised by the lack of shoppers at Arden Fair.

“Last year, it was packed,” the self-proclaimed Christmas shopping procrastinator said. “Where is everyone?”

With their double-digit percentage gains, online sales were a bright spot for retail.

On the weekend before Christmas, online transactions soared 37.1 percent over 2012, according to IBM Smarter Commerce, which aggregates data for 800 retail websites. Mobile purchases represented 41.5 percent of all online traffic, up from 34.3 percent last year.

“Consumers are gravitating toward e-commerce to avoid the crowds and cold weather,” said Jay Henderson, strategy director for IBM Smarter Commerce.

Brick-and-mortar stores still have an advantage over most online stores when it comes to last-minute shoppers who run out of time to have purchases shipped. In the final days before Christmas, some retailers like Macy’s, Kohl’s and Toys R Us stayed open during the wee hours, trying to lure procrastinators.

Inside the Macy’s store at Arden Fair, Kayla Thao fished through a display of Levi’s jeans, on sale for $40 each. Thao said she showed up Tuesday because gifts purchased online wouldn’t arrive in time.

Venturing out to a mall is unusual for the 22-year-old student, who does the majority of her shopping over the Internet.

“I don’t like waiting in line, and I don’t like the crowds,” she said.

Despite retailers’ final-week efforts, analysts predicted it would be difficult to capture the lost sales revenue.

Extended hours were “well taken by consumers,” said Shelley Kohan, vice president of retail consulting for RetailNext. “But from a retailer’s perspective, longer hours translate to higher operating costs and lower revenue.”

Stores at Arden Fair, including Loft, Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap, all offered discounts upward of 40 percent. But close to 1 p.m., the stores each had only a handful of customers.

Across the hall at Sears, shoppers took their time to browse the well-stocked shelves, while Christmas music played in the background.

Perhaps the longest line in the mall was for the Santa photo booth. Parents with toddlers in tow waited patiently for a chance to see the jolly old man himself. Few had shopping bags.

Arden Fair officials expected roughly the same amount of traffic this holiday season as last year. Spokesman Steve Reed said nearly a million shoppers funneled through since Black Friday, the traditional kickoff to the season.

“We’re comparing apples to oranges. Last year we had an extra week in the holiday season,” Reed said.

At Downtown Plaza, Veronica Martinez, 30, smiled as her 14-month daughter, Carmen, looked curiously at the other kids climbing the mall’s playground while artificial snowflakes fell from the sky.

“We’re spending less,” said Martinez, a Rancho Cordova resident. “I thought about going to Macy’s, but I don’t really need anything.”

Walking out of the Macy’s store into a nearly empty courtyard, Laura Zarembski carried gifts for her husband – some pajamas and a new phone case. Holding a coupon in one hand, Zarembski called herself a “conservative shopper.”

“I only buy things on sale,” she said.