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Retailers expecting late rush by shoppers

MANATEE -- Retailers are banking on a strong turnout from last-minute shoppers today to provide another jolt to a season already beating expectations.

Nobody’s breaking any records yet, but store operators throughout the Manatee-Sarasota area say sales this holiday are on pace to surpass last year, which was slightly better than the one before.

Many recession-wise consumers are still watching their wallets, but extended hours and strategic sales are bringing them out in incremental waves. With Christmas Eve falling on a Saturday this year, retailers are counting on one final hurrah.

“Sales have been pretty strong,” said Hakim Addalla, manager of the Palmetto Walmart. “We’re still seeing some effects of the recession, but for the most part, it’s business as usual.”

After first projecting holiday sales would grow 2.8 percent over last year’s, the National Retail Federation has upped the ante to 3.8 percent.

If that forecast holds true, it would amount to a record $469.1 billion in sales.

The season went racing to a strong start largely due to extended store hours on Thanksgiving and a heavy emphasis on the popular post-turkey day sales like Black Friday, Cyber Monday and even Small Business Saturday.

After that, however, traffic began to slow considerably.

“Everyone’s still cautiously optimistic,” said Rick McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation. “The recession was pretty tough on everybody, retail no different. We really had a fast start this year. Shoppers were out spending money and taking advantage of the sales ... We’re hoping for a similar surge Saturday.”

Retailers point to the recent warm weather as a deterrent. When the weather is brisk, consumers are more likely to spend their free time shopping.

That’s especially true for stores that focus on apparel, said Bill Webster, director of public and government affairs for Bealls.

“December has been a little slower, but we expect to have a good season once everything pulls together,” he said. “With everybody shopping at the end, it’s almost like a Tim Tebow story.”

To combat the mid-season lull, retailers have made a push to drive traffic to their Web sites. BestBuy.com has notched so many online sales, the company has notified customers some purchases made weeks ago won’t be ready for Christmas.

Retailers also have rolled out all-nighter bonanzas. For example, Bealls kept their stores open from 7 a.m. Wednesday to 11 p.m. Friday. Toys R Us in Bradenton also was open 24 hours for several days in December.

It seems to be working. Up until the final 10 days before Christmas, the latest numbers available, U.S. retail sales rose 2.5 percent over last year. But that important home stretch can account for nearly one-fifth of all holidays sales, according to the research firm ShopperTrak.

“It’s still too early to know how the season will fare entirely, but we’ve been very busy,” said Sarah Ozgun, assistant general manager for Ellenton Premium Outlets. “The season really started fast on Black Friday, and we’ve mostly seen it continue since.”

Even smaller mom-and-pop shops are enjoying a rise in business.

Similar to national trends, Rusty Crickett’s Coastal City Cottage in Bradenton has seen sales jump 2 percent over last year, with hopes to add to that today.

“The last few days we’ve been very busy, so I expect we’ll do even better,” said Charlie Kennedy, managing partner at the shop, which sells clothes and Florida gifts. “We’re grateful for our customers in this tough economy, and we’re looking for that extra bonus these last few days.”

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.

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