LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
For months retailers have been trying to get Americans into a holiday shopping mood. Christmas merchandise started to appear in stores around the time shoppers were looking for back-to-school shoes. But this week, the holiday retail season begins to heat up.
And here to discuss the outlook for retail sales is NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. And, Marilyn, I mean, the first question: Are most Americans really ready to shop now?
MARILYN GEEWAX: So far, sales data suggest, yes, a lot of people really are ready to start buying again. Retail sales have been up in four out of the last five months, and stores saw a particularly healthy bounce up in their revenues in October. So now the predictions for November and December are pretty positive.
The National Retail Federation expects sales to be up about 2.3 percent through this holiday season. And other forecasters are saying even more, maybe three percent. Now, that doesn't sound great. But, you know, when you look at last year when sales were only up a half of a percent, this is a good improvement.
And of course, we're way ahead of where we were in 2008 when the economy was in a free fall. That year, sales actually declined about four percent. So yes, at the mall the mood is pretty cheery this year especially compared with the last couple.
HANSEN: What about all the people without jobs, though? Are they sitting out the shopping season?
GEEWAX: Well, I think retailers are painfully aware that about 15 million people who want jobs still can't find them. So store managers know they're not going to see this return to the free spending ways we had in the late 1990s. But sales are rising from pretty depressed levels, because people who do have jobs are feeling a lot more confident.
Workers aren't seeing those scary headlines these days about massive layoffs. And, you know, employers have begun hiring again. It's slow, for sure, but they are hiring. So that leaves workers feeling a little less nervous and a little more inclined to spend money.
HANSEN: Last year, I remember we talked about the bargains that could be had. Will shoppers find the same kinds of bargains this year?
GEEWAX: No, the price cutting has been toned down a little bit this Thanksgiving. The surveys now are showing that while stores are certainly going to have those big, splashy, door-buster promotions, prices across the board aren't really being cut as dramatically as they were the last two years.
So you might get lured in to buy, say, a 32-inch flat screen HDTV - whatever -for less than $200. But when you get there you might find that most things are still at the regular price. Instead of price-slashing, it seems like the retailers are trying to find other tricks to entice us in.
HANSEN: Like what?
GEEWAX: Well, the big thing this year is longer hours. For the first time in its 124-year history, Sears is going to be open on Thanksgiving Day from 7 A.M. to noon. And then on Black Friday, as they call it, the next day, lots of stores are going to be opening way earlier than dawn.
Macy's, for one, is going to be open at 4 A.M. instead of five as they usually open. And Kohl's is trying to do them one better - they're going to open at 3 A.M. and then, of course, this is kind of funny. Some of them will be starting so early that it'll actually be late.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GEEWAX: Wal-Mart will start its Black Friday promotions at midnight. And Toys R Us, they're going to start at 10 P.M. on Thursday.
HANSEN: Are there other retailer tricks we should know about?
GEEWAX: Well, the big thing is to try to push us to shop actually 24 hours a day online. So free shipping is the big thing this year. Wal-Mart got a lot of attention earlier this month when it announced that it would have free shipping with no minimum purchase on about 60,000 items.
And then the others responded. You know, you have Target, Best Buy, others have come up with their promotions too that have various forms of free shipping on different merchandise.
HANSEN: What do people want this year?
GEEWAX: Well, if you're a kid, it's pretty traditional. The big things are Legos, Hot Wheels, dolls. Barbies are still incredibly popular. Iron Man is big this year.
But for people who are a little bit older, the wish list seems to be topped by electronic gadgets - video games, smart phones, tablet computers, e-readers. We want a buzz this year.
HANSEN: NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Marilyn, thanks.
GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome, Liane.