Four new types of U.S. shoppers have emerged this holiday season.
There's the bargain hunter who times deals. The midnight buyer who stays up 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 in the holiday shopping season that runs from November through December. While it won't be known how much Americans spent until the season ends 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, creating a kind of “dumbbell effect” in sales.
For the week ended Nov. 26, which included the traditional start of the holiday shopping season 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. 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 Thanksgiving night, she spent five hours and $400 at Walmart 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,” Middleton, an office manager, says about holiday shopping.
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 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 such as Macy's, Best Buy and Target for the first time opened at midnight 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 in 2010, when only a few stores were open at that time.
Of those shopping at midnight on Black Friday, 37 percent were ages 18 to 34. Older shoppers
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.
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 many suffered buyer's remorse and rushed back to return some items 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 bought 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.”
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 National Retail Federation's survey of 110 retailers. That 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 retailers' policies have been more lax since 2008, with some making it even easier to return purchases this year.
The ‘me' shopper
After scrimping on themselves during the recession, Americans turned more self-indulgent. The trend started last year and became more prevalent this season.
According to the retail federation, spending for nongift 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.
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 in the holiday season. She spent $200 on herself last year.
“I have been putting other people first,” she says. “I definitely felt I earned it.”
Stores encouraged such self-gifting. Ann Taylor's “Perfect Presents: One for you. One for her” campaign highlighted merchandise such as brightly colored sweaters. Brookstone's print ads urged shoppers to get accessories for their iPads and other electronics with the words: “gifts for your