It's that time for caroling, eggnog, holiday cheer — and for some, a frantic dash to the mall.
Last-minute shoppers hit stores on Christmas Eve in a surge that is expected to top off an unexpectedly strong holiday shopping season.
Among them was Len Boswell. He started his shopping at 6 a.m. at Starbucks. Later in the morning he was at a CVS drugstore in Decatur, Ga., picking up candy and a neck pillow for his wife.
"I should have done this a couple of weeks ago," acknowledges Boswell, 68, a director of book publishing at a nonprofit.
Taubman Centers, which operates malls across the country including The Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey and Beverly Center in Los Angeles, reported almost-full parking lots at some malls by 10 a.m., earlier than last year. Apparel, electronics, perfume and jewelry were among the biggest sellers. Many stores in Taubman malls reported that Friday was shaping up to be the busiest day of the year, Taubman spokeswoman Karen MacDonald said.
Macy's, in New York's Herald Square, was packed with shoppers by late morning. The store has been open around the clock since Wednesday and was set to close at 6 p.m. Saturday. Kimberly Sylvester, 28, was out for the first time doing her holiday shopping Christmas Eve. She had already spent $160 at Victoria's Secret, taking advantage of a sale — two bras for $40 — for her sister. At Macy's, she picked up Lauren by Ralph Lauren sheets marked down to $79. Sylvester, who works with special needs children, said she has been too busy to shop.
"This is my first day off," Sylvester said.
Stores are expected to ring up $469.1 billion during the holiday season, which begins Nov. 1st and runs through Dec. 31st. The final week before Christmas can account for up to 20 percent of those sales. Retailers tempered their expectations heading into the season because they worried that Americans weren't ready to spend in the weak economy. But sales have been so brisk during the two-month period that the National Retail Federation, the industry's big trade group, upgraded its overall sales growth forecast a full percentage point, to 3.8 percent.
Online, shoppers spent almost $32 billion for the holiday season, a 15 percent increase from a year ago, according to the comScore, which tracks Web use.
"We're seeing good traffic, good sales," said Sherif Mityas, a partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm. "Even with all the bad news and hesitancy in terms of the economy, consumers are still opening up their wallets more than last year, which is good news."
But at a time when Americans are still concerned about high unemployment, stagnant wages and market uncertainty, retailers aren't willing to leave anything to chance on the final shopping days before Christmas.
Toys R Us has also been open 24 hours a day in the days leading up to Christmas. At malls, Abercrombie & Fitch has been offering a blanket 50 percent off on all items while J. Crew and Madewell offered 30 percent off. Retailers' promotional e-mails are up 34 percent from a year ago, according to Responsys, which tracks e-mail activity from more than 100 merchants.
"They're clearly putting their best foot forward on promotions right now," said John Morris, analyst at BMO Capital Markets. Morris estimates that promotional sale activity is up about 7 percent compared with last year, taking into account the level of markdowns and the amount of goods marked down.
Whether it's the sales or just plain-old procrastination, last-minute shoppers were drawn to stores across the country on Christmas Eve.
At Manhattan Mall in New York, there was a steady stream of shoppers Saturday morning.
Shamek Shider, 22, was among them. He had spent $100 at Macy's on snow suits for his goddaughter on Friday, his first time out holiday shopping. He came back on Christmas Eve and spent $250 on jewelry and clothing at Macy's and J. C. Penney for his mother, sister and other relatives.
"This is when I see the best deals," said Shider, who lives in Newark, N.J.
Ryan Eagle, 25, planned to hit South Park Mall in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday morning to shop for presents for his wife. He always shops on Christmas Eve, he said, to get good deals and to people-watch. Last year, he found $200 boots on sale for $50 at Macy's.
"I'm a last-minute person," he said. "I enjoy going out and watching everyone run around."
Mae Anderson reported from Atlanta, Ga.
Retailer Writer Anne D'Innocenzio in New York contributed to this report.