Retailers Get Coal In Their Stockings

Retailers trying to salvage a dismal shopping season have offered deep discounts to last-minute shoppers. Analysts say Americans worried about the economy and their jobs have cut back on spending by turning to store brands and discounters such as Wal-Mart.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. A Merry Christmas to you. I'm Renee Montagne. It's not a surprise that this is shaping up to be one of the worst Christmas shopping seasons in decades. Retailers expect to confirm that when they report final holiday sales figures in a couple of weeks. Still, the last-minute shoppers were out yesterday, taking advantage of drastic markdowns, and NPR's Ina Jaffe was out too, joining the crowds.

(Soundbite of Christmas music)

INA JAFFE: There is no white Christmas by the beach, but its winter by southern California standards. So, yesterday last minute shoppers on 3rd Street in Santa Monica were bundled into jackets, and mufflers, and boots to protect themselves from temperatures that had plunged into the 50s.

The crowds definitely outnumbered the street musicians, but there weren't nearly as many people there as on a Saturday night when there is something good showing at the Multiplex. Most important perhaps, the majority of the people there were not carrying shopping bags. Tisha Anderson(ph) had just one from Banana Republic.

Ms. TISHA ANDERSON: The Banana is unbelievable right now. I've never seen prices like that before, ever.

JAFFE: Virtually every store on 3rd Street has sales signs in the window, some touting discounts as deep as 70 percent. Those are designed to get shoppers to do exactly what Tisha Anderson just did.

Ms. ANDERSON: I ended up getting two cashmere sweaters for my mother and then two Marina Wolf sweaters for myself. So, I - I'm not supposed to be shopping for me, but I ended up doing it, it's such a great deal.

JAFFE: Anderson saved all of her Christmas shopping for the very last day.

Ms. ANDERSON: I have a huge family. So, yeah, I'm going to be going till about midnight probably.

JAFFE: But she wasn't procrastinating, just being careful. She works in the beleaguered real-estate industry.

Ms. ANDERSON: Well, with the market and everything being the way that it is, you just got to make sure that before you go spend everything that there's money there to spend, and you still have some more to come back to in January.

JAFFE: And this year, she's paying cash for everything, no credit cards. Americans are definitely tightening the purse strings. According to a research company called ShopperTrack, sales this past weekend were down more than five percent compared to last year. And foot traffic in stores was down nearly 24 percent.

One of the many cutting back this Christmas is Hashem Mugarab(ph), he's an architect, and there aren't a lot of homes needing to be designed these days. So, he's spending less on presents and giving more money to charity, though he can hardly keep up with the demand.

Mr. HASHEM MUGARAB (Architect): I'm getting calls from everybody these days. And our budget is still is limited, we cannot help everybody. I think government should step in and help the people, instead of helping the banking system.

JAFFE: But cutting back has its up side, says Mugarab's wife, Noushin Ikbarpur(ph).

Ms. NOUSHIN IKBARPUR: Part of it is, I think people generally are a little bit tired of this over-consumerism, consumption. So, I think that's a good thing.

JAFFE: Their extended family has decided to play secret Santa this year, each adult gets just one gift. The kids are another story.

Mr. MUGARAB: Kids, you cannot forget kids. You have to buy for kids, for sure.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

JAFFE: You have to remember your lady friends too. At least, Sean Jerkins(ph) does. He's carrying a few shopping bags in girly colors. And these are for?

Mr. SEAN JERKINS: Well a couple of different girls, friends of mine, girls that I date.

JAFFE: There's a bag from the cosmetics emporium Sephora.

Mr. JERKINS: Girl stuff.

JAFFE: And another bag from Victoria's Secret.

Mr. JERKINS: That's always an instant hit, you know. If I didn't get the right thing too, she can always take it back and get the right size.

JAFFE: Jerkins is a good enough looking guy that in this town, I'm thinking actor. He says

Mr. JERKINS: I'm a bartender.

JAFFE: And unlike a lot of folks these days, his business is good.

Mr. JERKINS: People are still - got have a few cocktails, you know, libations always help, you know, especially through the holidays.

JAFFE: And after this holiday retailers will be saying make mine a double. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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