Four types of American shoppers have altered the shopping landscape this holiday season.
There's the bargain hunter who times deals. The midnight buyer who stays up late for discounts. The returner who gets buyer's remorse. And the "me" shopper who self-gifts.
It's the latest shift by consumers in the fourth year of a weak U.S. economy. Shoppers are expected to spend $469.1 billion during the holiday shopping season that runs from November through December. While it won't be known just how much Americans spent until the season ends on Saturday, it's clear they are shopping differently than in years past.
"We're seeing different types of buying behavior in a new economic reality," says C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group.
THE BARGAIN TIMER
Cost-conscious shoppers haven't just been looking for bargains this season. They've also been more deliberate about when to find those deals. Many believe the biggest bargains come at the beginning and end of the season, which has created a kind of "dumbbell effect" in sales.
For the week ended on Nov. 26, which included the traditional start of the holiday shopping season on the day after Thanksgiving, stores had the biggest sales surge compared with the prior week since 1993, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Stores Sales Index. The cumulative two-week-sales drop-off that followed marked the biggest percentage decline since 2000. Then, stores had another surge in the final days, as retailers stepped up promotions again.
"Shoppers are budgeting their money and time," says Paco Underhill, whose company, Envirosell, studies how consumers behave in stores. "They're focused on being opportunistic bargain shopping vultures."
Kalilah Middleton, 30, of Queens, is one of them. Starting late on Thanksgiving night, she spent five hours and $400 at Wal-Mart and Target. She bought a TV and clothing at 50 percent off. Then, she waited until Christmas Eve to shop again because she believed she'd find lower prices later in the season.
"This is when you get the best deals," says Middleton, an office manager, about her holiday shopping.
Shoppers expect even bigger discounts later in the season. According to America's Research Group, about one-third of shoppers say they want to see post-Christmas discounts of about 70 to 80 percent.
THE MIDNIGHT BUYER
Bargain shoppers used to wake up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of big discounts on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. This year, some shoppers instead stayed up late on Thanksgiving night.
This shift in behavior was in large part due to retailers' efforts to outdo each other during the traditional start to the holiday shopping season. Stores like Macy's, Best Buy and Target for the first time opened at midnight on Thanksgiving night, offering deals that once were reserved for the next day.
Twenty-four percent of Black Friday shoppers were at stores at midnight, according to a poll by the National Retail Federation, the industry's biggest trade group. That's up from 9.5 percent the year before when only a few stores were open during that time.
But those hours mostly appealed to the younger set. Of those shopping at midnight on Black Friday, 37 percent were ages 18 to 34. Older shoppers weren't as quick to run to the malls. Only 23.5 percent of 35- to 54-year-olds were in stores by midnight.
Macy's, for one, drew 10,000 people to its midnight opening. Terry Lundgren, Macy's CEO, says many of them were young people who turned out for the Justin Bieber $65 gift sets and discounted fashions.
Anika Ruud, 15, of Boca Raton, Fla., went out with her four cousins to Macy's at midnight and then shopped at Target until 2:30 a.m. She picked up two bras at Macy's for $10. Then, she and her cousins went home to bed.
"It's always been inconvenient," Ruud says of the traditional 4 a.m. Black Friday openings of years past. "No one likes to wake up early."
Shoppers who were lured into stores by bargains gleefully loaded up on everything from discounted tablet computers to clothing early in the holiday season. But soon after, many suffered a case of buyer's remorse and rushed back to return some of the items that they bought.
For instance, Elizabeth Yamada, 55, of Fort Lee, N.J., says she got caught up in the shopping frenzy over the Thanksgiving weekend and purchased a $350 coat that was marked down more than 50 percent at Macy's. She returned it a week later.
"It was nice, but I didn't need it," says Yamada, who works part-time as a waitress and a hospital aide. "It was impulsive shopping. But I am doing more reflecting."
For every dollar stores take in this holiday season, it's expected they will have to give back 9.9 cents in returns, up from 9.8 last year, according to the a survey of 110 retailers the NRF. It would be the highest return rate since the recession. In better economic times, it's about 7 cents.
Stores have themselves to blame for the higher returns. They lured shoppers in with deals of up to 60 percent off as early as October. Because of the deals, shoppers spent more than they normally would — and then many felt bad about it. Retailers' policies have been more lax since 2008, with some making it even easier to return purchases this year, so a lot of items that were purchased early in the season went back.
THE "ME" SHOPPER
One for you; one for me.
After scrimping on themselves during the recession, Americans turned more self-indulgent. It's a trend that started last year, but became more prevalent this season.
According to the NRF, spending for non-gift items will increase by 16 percent this holiday season to $130.43 per person. That's the highest number recorded since it started tracking it in 2004.
"This season, the consumer put herself ahead of the giving," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with market research firm The NPD Group.
Betty Thomas, a health care coordinator at a hospital in Raleigh, N.C., says she spent $1,700 on a ring and bracelet for herself and a rug for her home during the holiday season. That's up dramatically from the $200 she spent last year.
"I have been putting other people first," Thomas says. "I definitely felt I earned it."
Stores have been encouraging such self-gifting.
AnnTaylor's "Perfect Presents: One for you. One for her" campaign highlighted merchandise like brightly colored sweaters. Brookstone's print ads urged shoppers to get accessories for their iPads and other electronics with the words: "gifts for your gadgets." And Shopittome.com, an online site that alerts consumers to clothing sales they're interested in, launched "Treat Yourself Tuesday" after Thanksgiving weekend.