NEW YORK (AP) _ Retailers ushered in the post-Christmas shopping season Wednesday by opening earlier than ever and slashing prices, with hopes that bargain hunters and gift-card splurgers will prop up what has so far been an unimpressive showing by consumers.
Target Corp. warned late Monday that its sales at established stores might decline for December, while a broad gauge of consumer spending released by Mastercard Inc., which includes estimates for spending by check and cash, showed an increase of 3.6 percent from Thanksgiving to Christmas, compared to a 6.6 percent gain in the year-ago period. Excluding gasoline and auto sales, that figure was a slim 2.4 percent gain.
So stores are again trying to position themselves to extend the holiday season.
Toys ``R'' Us Inc., which planned to open at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, two hours earlier than last year, will be offering 40 percent price cuts on all MP3 and iPod accessories. Macy's Inc. is offering 50 percent to 75 percent off cashmere sweaters, while Saks Fifth Ave. cut prices on fur coats by 40 percent to 60 percent.
In Lisbon, Conn., Maggie Challinor joined about 20 shoppers huddled for warmth in the vestibule of Kohl's department store for a 6 a.m. opening. Challinor, of Norwich, Conn., planned to buy a coat with a Christmas gift card she received from her husband.
Gift cards helped the family keep to their Christmas budget, she said. ``We spent less. We really watched for sales.''
Store manager Joe St. Rock said the store sold about $500,000 in gift cards in December, and many would be redeemed in the next two or three weeks. He said the store had a good Christmas season, with practical items like clothing the best sellers.
``All the gloom and doom that's been predicted didn't seem to pan out, at least not here at Kohl's in Lisbon, anyway,'' St. Rock said.
Samantha Williams, with her bundled 7-week-old daughter, arrived early Wednesday to exchange baby clothes. Waking early was better than fighting lines later, she said.
Barbara Gagne of Griswold, Conn., found a 55 blouse marked down to $11, which she bought after returning two pairs of pants.
``I'm going to be shopping now,'' Gagne said. ``I'm here for the bargains.''
Shopper Wendell Davis was thinking way ahead, and picking up Christmas decorations at a 70 % discount.
``I told my wife last night I'm going to get up and I'm going to go down to the store,'' he said. ``I've never done this before.''
Meanwhile, Susan Depetris was loading pants and sweaters into her car outside of Kohl's in Medford, Mass., but didn't plan on looking for gifts for anyone else. She had just one person on her mind while she shopped _ herself.
``My son gave me gift cards for clothes, and I get up with the birds, so I figured I'd get the most with my money.'' she said.
Joe LaPorte, who was also at Kohl's, also was looking for just one thing, a leather jacket for himself.
``I saw them the other day,'' he said as he looked at the rack of jackets marked down from $300 to $119.95. ``I figured come early, beat the rush.''
The post-Christmas season has become more important with the increasing popularity of gift cards. Gift card sales are only recorded on retailers' balance sheet when cards are redeemed.
According to the National Retail Federation, consumers were expected to spend a total of $26.3 billion in gift cards this holiday season, up 42 % from $18.5 billion in 2005.
ShopperTrak RCT Corp. said that the week after Christmas accounts for about 16 percent of total holiday sales.
``This is going to be a more important chunk of business than most people realize,'' said Scott Krugman, a spokesman at NRF.
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research firm, agreed, noting that when the industry looks at the holiday results, they need to include January business.
``When we take a look at the results of this holiday retail season, it will be important to remember that the rules have changed and so should the way we read the success of the holiday,'' Cohen said.