Gift returns trickle in
By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
A lukewarm Christmas shopping season appears to have translated into an unexpected bonus for retailers: fewer returns the day after.
Despite setting up extra registers to handle expected gift returns, almost everyone at the Dade City Wal-Mart was there to buy things, not bring them back, said store manager Christine Stillwagon. Huge price cuts on seasonal items and gift sets brought out shoppers early this year, she said.
"I had people here waiting to get in when we opened the store," she said.
Cosmetic gift sets, children's items and Christmas supplies priced as low as half their pre-Christmas levels packed shoppers into the aisles. At the store, shoppers were seen loading up on giant plastic candy cane decorations, brightly colored strings of lights and other seasonal items.
The parking lot out front was jammed Wednesday afternoon, with some parking on the grass surrounding the lot.
"They're filling their carts," Stillwagon said. "They're here to buy."
The same went for Kmart in Land O'Lakes. Shoppers there swarmed the holiday aisles to scarf up 50-percent-off wrapping paper, ornaments and Christmas cards.
Customers such as Kimberly Ruff said Kmart was like most stores she'd visited Wednesday: They seemed to have less in stock, and thus fewer sales, than usual.
"I don't think they were as generous with the percentage off. I don't know if that has to do with the economy or not," Ruff said as she loaded tubes of wrapping paper into her car.
Lines for returns, meanwhile, were short or nonexistent in the Wal-Mart supercenter off Little Road in New Port Richey. The store has set aside four extra registers to handle the traditional "day after" return crush, but by midmorning, only three of the registers were in use, and none had a line.
At Target in Port Richey, post-holiday bargain hunters vastly outnumbered those making returns, said manager Allan Crabtree.
"We had 50 to 75 people waiting to get in when we opened this morning, but most of them were here for the 50 percent off clearance sale," Crabtree said. "I'm thinking that Saturday might be a busier day for returns."
At the Wal-Mart Supercenter in New Port Richey, store associate Rosalie Skillings had been at her post for nearly three hours and the returns that had passed through her register didn't even fill a shopping cart. And most of the items were small: a box of chocolates, a few candles, a radio antenna.
"People must have been more cautious this year and didn't buy just for the sake of buying," Skillings said. "The returns are mostly piddly stuff . . . nothing of any real significance."
"I can take a return on 16," Skillings shouted over the registers to nobody in particular. No one took her up on the offer.
Experts say Skillings' observations are on the money. Take clothing, for example.
Clothing is one of the most-often returned gifts, and apparel sales were down more than 5 percent this season, a significant drop over last year, said Patrice Selleck, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. With sales lower, it made sense that returns would be lower as well.
"People were more moderate in their spending this year, so they'll probably also be moderate in their returns," Selleck said. "It's also only the day after. Most people had to go back to work today. (Returns) might pick up by Friday or Saturday."
Sales were up this season on many big-ticket items, like furniture and home entertainment equipment, Selleck said. Those items, however, are rarely returned because they're not often given as gifts. People tend to buy those for themselves.
With a disappointing Christmas shopping season over, retailers are setting their sights on the post-Christmas selling period, slashing prices to draw shoppers back to stores.
The seven days leading up to the new year typically account for about 10 percent of total holiday sales, but this year those results were more important than usual. Merchants are hoping the deals attract enough business to compensate for otherwise flat results. They also need to make room for spring goods, which start coming in next month.
At the New Port Richey Wal-Mart Supercenter, Christi Haas and her daughter, Caitlyn, 8, were returning Barbie clothes and accessories. The five items, including a Ken doll, totaled $30 and were the extent of the Haas' holiday returns Wednesday.
"This is our only stop," said Mrs. Haas, who had three other children in tow. "She just wasn't into Barbie this year."
A recent birthday gift might have had something to do with it. Caitlyn received Sprinkles, a spotted Arabian horse, 14.1 hands high. Sprinkles -- not Barbie -- will be getting most of Caitlyn's attention, Mrs. Haas said.
"We're not returning the horse," she added.
-- Times staff writers Chase Squires and James Thorner contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.
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