Retailers are trying to boost sales with longer-than-ever hours and more discounts as shoppers -- who fell into a lull between Black Friday and Christmas Eve -- get set to begin the last pre-holiday gift-buying weekend.
Macy's is trumpeting its first around-the-clock shopping event at most of its stores, from 7 a.m. Friday through the final minutes of Sunday. Ross Park Mall and South Hills Village will be open until 11 p.m. every night through Saturday, and until 10 Sunday.
Toys R Us will stay open for 88 hours, from 6 a.m. Friday through 10 p.m. Monday, and CEO Jerry Storch told CNBC this could be a record-breaking weekend, especially Saturday.
This season brought surprises.
"It started out very strong with Black Friday weekend, but it didn't seem to hold. It quieted down quite a bit," retail expert Jeff Green said on Wednesday. Activity has picked up in the last week, he understands.
Possible factors: Malaise brought on by the 32-day span, the longest possible, from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas. Economic worries and mild, wet weather that dampened enthusiasm for sweaters and coats.
Will Hall of Renfrew notices more last-minute shoppers this year. He was at Toys R Us in Cranberry on Wednesday morning, a quiet time, and filled a shopping cart with gifts for son Liam, 3.
"I'm glad I work the afternoon shift. The stores have been packed," he said, adding he's finished all his shopping, except for a gift card for his uncle.
But only about a third of shoppers have completed their gift-buying, American Research Group said.
Ross Steinman, an associate psychology professor at Widener University, said some shoppers procrastinate because they're worried about finding the perfect gift.
Emotions are tied up in presents, he said, and people realize a too-small or too-big gift can alter a relationship. "What do they do instead? They avoid it," he said, adding shoppers can benefit by waiting for the highest last-minute markdowns.
Jeff Herzog, an Army officer who teaches at Slippery Rock University, was at Toys R Us in search of Monster High girl dolls. "It was buy-one, get-half-off on the second," he said, adding that his daughter, Gabby, will get one for Christmas and another later.
Retail traffic counter ShopperTrak said activity was up 15.1 percent last week through Saturday compared to the prior week, but down 4.4 percent from a year ago.
While this Saturday promises to be one of the five busiest shopping days of the season, the Chicago-based firm trimmed its retail sales forecast for November and December to a 2.5 percent increase from a year ago, down from 3.3 percent predicted in September. It blamed Superstorm Sandy, recent shootings at retail centers and economic woes as factors. ShopperTrak's technology works like a virtual turnstile to count visitors at retail centers.
"There's been more awareness around heavily discounted items," said Chris Angell, director of global marketing. "People put off making the time to go to the stores, and the longer they wait, the heavier the pressure is on the merchant" to mark down prices. Still, people are visiting more stores for the first time in four years, he said.
Market research firm IBISWorld forecast that holiday spending will increase 3.7 percent from last year to total $69.2 billion, a lower rate than the 4.9 percent rise in 2011 because of consumers' fear of the effects of the approaching "fiscal cliff."
The Chase Holiday Pulse shows last week's "Green Week" was the busiest seven-day period of the season for transaction volume. Online sales were up 10.7 percent year-over-year through the week as shoppers took advantage of free shipping.
In Cranberry, Mark Kreminski and three co-workers at software company TrueCommerce bought a Kindle, a coffee machine and a TV as gifts to raffle off.
"They were all on sale. There are good prices everywhere," he said.
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