Retailers are pushing come-ons from expanded hours and deals to musical performances, in hopes of bringing back frugal shoppers in the sales lull that typically follows the Thanksgiving weekend bargain blitz.
Stores are determined to prevent a repeat of last year, when it was unusually quiet after a solid start to the season. Shoppers didn't return to stores until the final days before Christmas, making it the weakest holiday season in four decades.
Toys R Us introduced a December catalog with 40 pages of deals good through Saturday on hundreds of the season's most popular toys. The prices also are being promoted on TV.
"We are much more aggressive" than last year, Toys R Us spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh said.
Mall operator Westfield Shopping Centers is offering deals and entertainment from free gift wrapping to choir performances at its 55 malls on weekends through Dec. 20.
Mall of America, the nation's largest shopping center, is giving shoppers two $70 tickets for unlimited rides at the mall's Nickelodeon Universe in exchange for proof of every $250 they spend at the mall. Mall of America also is holding more performances and celebrity events, including a recent appearance by Sarah Palin, than last year.
Brick-and-mortar stores appear to be muddling through.
Spokesman Dan Jasper said 6 percent more customers have visited the Mall of America, and overall sales are a little more than 2 percent higher this week than a year earlier.
ShopperTrak, a research firm that tracks sales and traffic at more than 50,000 stores, reported Wednesday that sales for the week that ended last Saturday slipped 0.3 percent from a year earlier.
Online sales, in contrast, seem strong. Web analytics company Coremetrics in San Mateo, Calif., says online sales rose 11 percent for Monday through Wednesday compared with the same time a year ago.
C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C., believes most customers are waiting for big discounts.
"This year is a repeat of last year, except you have more customers wanting bigger discounts," he said.
_ By AP Retail Writer Anne D'Innocenzio
Recession's new casualty: professional gift wrapping
CHICAGO (AP) _ Whatever you do, don't let Linda Summerlin know you use gift bags.
"That's against my religion!" the professional gift wrapper says with a laugh. "Don't say the word gift bag!"
Gift bags or not, business is slower at Summerlin's Los Angeles-based Celebrity Wrap, where sales are down 30 percent this year.
Even so, regular customers are still paying Summerlin's $15-and-up rates per package for personalized gift wrap and elaborately customized decorations she calls "embellishments." They include everything from footballs and toys to, once, a specially carved wooden monkey ornament for a client who was a fan of the primates.
Her prices, which include pick up and delivery, vary by the size of the item being wrapped _ she's even wrapped a full-sized motorcycle.
"Sooner or later it's going to go back up," she said. "And there's always going to be a client base that needs that service anyway: executives who have no time to wrap but they want to impress their clients, or their family or friends."
This year she's using fancy paper and in some cases even silk scarves to wrap her clients' items, which include lots of iPhones and Bose stereos, along with, of all things, fluffy bathrobes.
Christmas is slower in Milwaukee too this year. But it's still the busiest time for the gift-wrapping business at Broadway Paper, where employees strategically place seams along box corners. The store charges $5 per item, plus the cost of paper _ chosen from close to 100 available in the shop _ and ribbon. Bows are included.
Store owner Kate Strozok acknowledges the beauty of a wrapped gift is fleeting _ particularly on Christmas Day. So why shell out extra cash on top of a sometimes-already expensive present?
"A lot of times, that can be part of the gift," Strozok said. "It shows more meaning to the gift itself and the giving of the gift. And I think it makes it a little more special."
_ AP Retail Writer Ashley M. Heher