Merchants are opening early and staying up late this weekend for what could be the busiest shopping weekend of the year.
Many retailers who suffered through a ho-hum Christmas a year ago are enjoying more ho-ho this year, even as they continue to promote deals and offer sales.
"The weather should be clear, the football games are over and it's time for people to shop," said Bill Graves, general manager for Dillard's department store at Hamilton Place.
Buoyed by better-than-expected retail sales growth in November, the National Retail Federation and the International Council of Shopping Centers predict this year could have the best annual gain in holiday sales since 2005.
Barbara Faucette, vice president of mall marketing for Chattanooga-based CBL & Associates Properties Inc., said she expects sales at Hamilton Place mall and more than 80 other CBL sites to be up at least 3 percent this year, "and perhaps even more if what we are hearing continues through the month."
* 14 percent - The share of annual sales by department stores in December
* 21 percent - The share of annual jewelry sales in December
* 3.3 percent - Forecasted gain in retail sales this year by the National Retail Federation
* 6.8 percent - Retail sales gain in November 2010 over a year ago, including automobiles, gas stations and restaurants
$732 million - November sales tax collections in November, up 3.37 percent over a year ago
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Census, National Retail Federation
* Hamilton Place Mall will be open today from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday
* Northgate Mall will be open today from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. today, noon to 7 p.m. on Sunday
* Bradley Square Mall will be open today from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday
* Walnut Square Mall in Dalton will be open today from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday
* Target stores will be open from 8 a.m. to midnight today and Sunday
* Best Buy stores will be open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. today and from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
* Kmart stores will be open from 6 a.m. to midnight today and Sunday.
* Belk stores will be open from 6 a.m. to midnight today
Stores extend hours, promotions
to boost critical holiday sales
Retailers stocked up for a bigger holiday sales season, so there is still plenty of merchandise. Some is being marked down even before Santa arrives next week.
"Last year there was a tendency, and rightfully so, for retailers to be conservative in their buying," Faucette said. "This year there are a lot more product choices for consumers."
For many merchants, the last Saturday before Christmas is often the busiest sales day of the year. Besides extended hours, several retailers, including Belk, Stein Mart and Toys R Us, are touting doorbuster sales early in the day.
"Saturday is a very big day for us, and we're doing what we can to be ready," said Marcy Carter, general manager for The Gap at Hamilton Place.
Steve Legg, general manager for Sears at Hamilton Place, said in the week before Christmas "every day is huge for us." So far, Legg said, the season "has been sporadic" at his store.
"There has been a lot of traffic out, but sales have been up and down," he said. "I think a lot of people have been holding off."
Rossville resident Kelly Moulder, shopping Friday at the Brainerd Walmart store, is among the consumers retailers are targeting for the final week.
"I procrastinated more than usual this year, but I've got the next three days off to get my shopping done," she said.
The holidays are especially critical for jewelers.
The U.S. Bureau of the Census calculates that 21 percent of all jewelry sales occur in December, and many retail jewelers report an even bigger share of their business comes in the weeks before Christmas.
"We probably do a third of our business for the entire year in December," said Bob Mason, owner of Rone Regency Jewelers in East Brainerd. "It's going to be a very busy week, but it's also a very fun time because you get a lot of last-minute shoppers, especially husbands coming in sweating near the end."
Mason, who moved the 66-year-old business this year from the Brainerd Village shopping center to Gunbarrel Road, said he is enjoying double-digit sales gains.
"I think Chattanooga's economy is doing better than most markets, and we've been very blessed this year," Mason said.
Holiday climate set
The cold and snowy conditions this week may have closed area schools, but merchants said it helped boost sales by putting shoppers more in the Christmas spirit.
"As soon as we get snow flurries, then the consumer tends to get more in the buying spirit, especially for cold-weather apparel," Faucette said.
Even before the cold weather arrived, consumers in Tennessee and Georgia had been opening their wallets more than they did a year ago.
Tennessee has reported eight consecutive months of year-over-year retail sales gains this year and employment has grown gradually since January, according to state employment and revenue agencies.
In Georgia, retail sales have grown over year-ago levels for six consecutive months and employment has increased steadily since March, when adjusted for seasonal fluctuations, state figures indicate.
"It's certainly going to be a better year than last year, but 2009 was a disaster for many merchants," said Matt Murray, associate director for the University of Tennessee's Center for Business and Economic Research. "I would suspect that retail sales in Tennessee to be up this holiday season 3, 4 and maybe even 5 percent over last year."
But after the worst economic downturn in decades during 2008 and 2009, consumers aren't necessarily returning to the lavish spending of years past.
Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Center at the University of Georgia, predicts Christmas retail sales will be up 3.5 percent this year over last at Georgia stores.
"We're beginning to see job growth again, and that is giving households the confidence and wherewithal to spend more," he said. "We are in a recovery that is now 18 months old, believe it or not."
But with unemployment averaging 10.1 percent in Georgia and 9.4 percent in Tennessee last month, many consumers remain cautious.
Adam Gulledge, a self-employed flooring and remodeling contractor in Dalton, Ga., said he's cutting back on Christmas spending this year after his work declined and his wife got hurt.
"In our current condition, we're having to buy less this year," Gulledge said.
Johnnie Mathis, who lives in East Brainerd, said she is sticking to a budget for buying gifts.
"I'm also trying to teach my children and grandchildren to save, and in this economy I think that's real important," Mathis said. "We have a little wooden box called the treasure chest we put money in all year, and last week we counted up the money and we're going to split the $78 among everyone."
Humphreys said household savings rates have increased nearly fivefold from pre-recession lows.
"That's probably a good thing in the long run, but that will slow the pace of spending activity, and it does mean we won't have as rapid of an increase in consumer spending as we've seen in previous recoveries," he said. 'We have seen some shift in household priorities away from spending and toward savings."