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Bargain hunters cram purchases into final days

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Holiday shoppers walk halls under festive decorations at FairOaks Mall, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012.
Holiday shoppers walk halls under festive decorations at FairOaks Mall, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012.

Viewpoint Books employees Polly Verbanic, right, and Celia Watts, check out gift items for shoppers Susan Hundley, left, and Rosy Fernandez, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, at the downtown bookstore.
Viewpoint Books employees Polly Verbanic, right, and Celia Watts, check out gift items for shoppers Susan Hundley, left, and Rosy Fernandez, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, at the downtown bookstore.

It’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas — with 25 percent to 60 percent-off discount banners popping up in Columbus-area stores, and shoppers cruising a vibrant Edinburgh Premium Outlets mall or making last-minute gift purchases from downtown merchants.

“Last Christmas was a good one for us, and so far this year we’re doing as well as last year,” said Terry Whittaker, owner of Viewpoint Books, as customers browsed the shelves of his independent bookstore at Sixth and Washington streets.

At Edinburgh Premium Outlets, a 10-minute drive north from Columbus’ city limits on Interstate 65, discounts were as much in evidence as the recorded Christmas music drifting across the crowded parking lot from loudspeakers.

Yankee Candle advertised 40 percent to 65 percent discounts through Christmas Eve. Tommy Hilfiger and Puma had 50 percent discounts on some items. Loft Outlet advertised 60 percent off V-neck pullover sweaters. Gap Outlet had discounts up to 70 percent on some items.

Lisa Titzer, with three friends in tow, had driven from Evansville to shop at the outlet mall. Normally, Titzer said she buys three-fourths of her Christmas gifts online, but this year she planned to cram 90 percent of her shopping into a single day because she ran out of time.

“I guess this year, I’ll end up spending $5,000 on Christmas, but half of that will go for a new TV,” she said.

That’s more money than Titzer and her family usually spend, but the sudden willingness to splurge isn’t necessarily tied to increased confidence about the job market or faith that Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., will be able to avoid that nasty fiscal cliff.

“I’ve worked for a big corporation for 23 years, and during at least 20 of those years we’ve lived with the threat of downsizing. You get used to it. The key thing is to prepare and budget,” Titzer said.

Other shoppers said discounts on most merchandise seemed ho-hum early in the shopping season.

“This is the first year in a while I didn’t go out shopping on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving),” said Bonnie Shafer, a registered nurse who drove with a colleague from Indianapolis to shop at the outlet mall at midweek. “I just didn’t see any great ads that were enough to draw me into the stores.

“Gas prices were up, and I guess retailers were under the gun because of higher costs,” she said.

Shafer said her Christian faith helps her remain optimistic about the future, although “I feel bad for people who are out of work in this market, even recent college graduates who earned good degrees.”

Recent national forecasts of Christmas retail sales have been lackluster heading into the final weekend of Christmas shopping. At midweek, ShopperTrak, a forecasting service that analyzes 40,000 retail outlets nationwide, said it expects sales this season to rise 2.5 percent from a year ago. That’s sharply lower than the 3.7 percent increase in holiday sales experienced in 2011.

Barb Lorey, whose family owns a crafts store in Jasper, a two-hour drive southwest of Columbus, said sales have been better for her shop this year than in 2011, but consumers have been trained to wait for bargain prices.

“They want you to be able to beat Walmart’s prices,” she said.

Lorey, shopping at the outlet mall this week, said most of her Christmas purchases have been for her grandchildren, joking that the two little boys’ parents say they never need to buy clothes for the kids because grandma is so generous.

At FairOaks Mall, 47-year-old Susan Sullivan said she’s still extremely budget-conscious and prides herself on being a coupon clipper.

“You have to be smart. I don’t really see the economy getting any better. When I fill up my truck, I still spend $4.05 per gallon for diesel.”

Whittaker of Viewpoint Books said top-sellers are always children’s books, regional books and works from Indiana authors. One hot seller this year is “Rising from the Ashes: The Return of Indiana University Basketball,” written by Indianapolis sportswriter Terry Hutchens with a forward by Hoosier hoops legend Calbert Cheaney.

Viewpoint also has started selling e-readers for the first time this Christmas with encouraging results, Whittaker said, although physical books still “make up 99.5 percent of our sales.”

National retail analysts say many shoppers have held back on spending due to concerns about their financial future — and the possibility of tax increases — if Congress and the White House can’t reach a compromise.

Other analysts hold out hope for a big final three-day push to save Christmas sales.

The holiday season is four days longer than a year ago and includes a full weekend right before Christmas, which could be tempting some shoppers to wait longer to buy gifts.

According to a survey of 1,000 consumers conducted by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs, 64.9 percent of shoppers surveyed had finished their holiday buying as of last Sunday. That’s lower than the 70.3 percent during the same time a year ago.

“It’s coming down to the wire,” said David Bassuk, managing director and co-head of the retail practice at AlixPartners. “It’s going to require retailers to be more aggressive with their promotions than they were hoping heading into the weekend.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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