BRADENTON -- With the wrappings barely ripped from their Christmas packages, shoppers headed to the stores in droves Wednesday to make gift exchanges and to score post-holiday bargains.
Though final holiday sales figures won't be released until mid-January, the Florida Retail Federation predicts that this year Florida shoppers will spend $58 billion on gifts and other holiday items. The figure represents a 5.2 percent jump from last year's $55 billion holiday spending total, according to the federation, and likely will see a boost from post-holiday sales.
The prediction didn't surprise Jennifer Colson who hoped to avoid big crowds by setting out early Wednesday morning to return some gifts her husband had received. She soon discovered that lots of other people had the same plan.
"At one store I had two people in line ahead of me, and by the time I left there were five people behind me," Colson said as she waited in line at Bealls Department Store in Bradenton. "There are a lot of people out, so I'm not doing any shopping -- I'm not that brave."
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While shopping wasn't part of Colson's plan, Bealls manager Dulce Bruss said that people who return a gift frequently stay to shop post-holiday sales.
"People look at the bargains," she said.
And some, including Gail and Web Cutting, brave post-holiday crowds specifically to take advantage of retailers' after-Christmas sales.
"We do have to take a second look at these deals," Gail Cutting said while perusing a rack of discounted men's shirts for Web. "Then I'm going to look for handbags and jewelry, while he looks for golf shirts and shoes."
Shoppers also got an early start Wednesday at the Ellenton Premium Outlet
mall hunting post-Christmas bargains.
A Canadian family was there searching for designer items.
"My mother and my aunt were here for Christmas and it seemed like a good time to go shopping," said Elaine Klimasko, who along with her mother Rose Klimasko and her aunt Anne Dumaslki purchased designer handbags at a bargain. "Even without the sales, the prices are just so much better than in Canada, so this is great."
In fact, traffic generated by gift exchanges and post-holiday sales figure significantly in Florida retailers' holiday seasonal success, said Ellenton Premium Outlets General Manager Bill Mann.
"There are winter travelers here in Florida and markdowns for them to take advantage of, so the week after Christmas is a very big week for us," Mann said.
But exchanges and deep discounts are only part of the picture. The rise in the availability and diversity of pre-paid gift cards has also made the week after-Christmas important to retailers' bottom line, says John Fleming, communications director for the Florida Retail Federation.
"In the past 10 years, retailers have really embraced gift cards," Fleming said. "You've seen gift cards on sale in drug stores and grocery stores. Shoppers like to buy them and people like to get them, so it's that spending that is helping to make the week between Christmas and New Year's Day important."
Just how significantly the post-Christmas period will figure in retailers' bottom line won't be known until next month, Flemings said. Ultimately, how well Florida retailers will fare this year depends on several factors.
"We have a lot of travelers in Florida right now and, in general, the South seems to be doing better this year," Fleming said. "But it is way too soon to say exactly how retailers did this holiday season in general."