It was early, but Sherry Hunt didn't mind. Heck, she likes it that way - smaller crowds, better bargains.
On the day after Christmas, Hunt left her Gardner home around 7 a.m. and was in Lawrence soon after, stocking up on next year's holiday supplies: strings of lights, Christmas towels and all the rest.
"My friend and I go out about every year," Hunt said after the day's shopping had ended.
But the spree isn't over for Hunt and her shopping buddy, Debbie Wilper. Hunt said they'll be back at it tomorrow, hitting shops in Olathe and Overland Park to grab more post-holiday bargains.
Retailers hope that shoppers like Hunt can make up for lagging sales this season, as shoppers flock back to shops for a second round of the holiday shopping season.
Many stores - stymied by shoppers procrastinating even longer than last year - are relying even more on the post-holiday business to meet their modest sales goals, and wooed customers with deeper discounts, expanded shopping hours and fresh regular price merchandise.
They're largely aiming their efforts at the growing numbers of gift card holders who are expected to spend their newfound money more generously. Gift cards are recorded as sales only when they're redeemed.
"Retailers have recognized that December has 31 days," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y.
In fact, in an effort to prop up profits, a growing number of stores such as Coach Inc., Target Corp. and American Eagle Outfitters Inc. rolled out some spring merchandise, while KB Toys Inc. was pushing new versions of Barbie and the funky Bratz dolls.
Consumer electronic chains such as Best Buy Co. Inc. were highlighting CDs, DVDs and video games in their advertising, counting on shoppers to feed the gadgets they received for the holiday.
"I'm looking for new merchandise," said James Coffey, who was among the early shoppers at Town Center Mall in Charleston, W.Va. He was bearing gift cards including one from Sears, Roebuck and Co. and another for the mall, aiming to spend as much as $300.
Still, most shoppers were clamoring for a deal.
"I wouldn't pay full price today for anything," said Misty Watters, who snapped up discounted Nike sweat pants and T-shirts at McCain Mall in North Little Rock, Ark.
"We're looking for anything on sale," said Jennifer Westfall, of Charleston, W.Va., who brought her mother and 7-year-old daughter to the local Charleston Mall. "Only cheap-o markdowns."
Westfall found several deals, including a $130 cocktail dress for $20 and children's clothes discounted 90 percent.
Meanwhile, at the Robinsons-May store in suburban Canoga Park, Calif., hundreds of people were standing outside in the rain before the 6 a.m. opening.
"I'm just here to see if there's a bargain," said Pamela Porterfield, who purchased discounted bowling ball coffee mugs.
Some shoppers were finishing their own Christmas shopping.
"You get good bargains," said Gloria Mendez of New York City, who left a Filene's Basement store in Manhattan with two loaded bags.
James Johnson, a driver for FedEx Corp., bought a last-minute gift at a Wal-Mart store in Bowie, Md.
"I just didn't have time before Christmas. I was too busy working," Johnson said.
Some shoppers were able to nab the season's hottest gifts, which have been in scarce supply.
Kimberlee Wiley of New Bedford, Mass., went hunting a $300 iPod digital music player Monday at the local Filene's department store, using all the gift cards she received for Christmas. She discovered they were sold out, and later bought the player online.
While this week should be busy for retailers, Cohen of NPD expects that retailers will wind up with a modest sales increase of a little more than 3 percent for the November-December period.
The estimate is based on same-store sales, which are sales at stores opened at least a year.
Michael P. Niemira expects that 20 percent of gift card holders will redeem their cards this week. According to a survey conducted by Accenture, 44 percent of shoppers polled said they spend their gift card within a month of receiving it. And more than half said they will spend more than the value of the card.
Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Taubman Centers Inc., which operates or owns 23 malls in 11 states, reported that 25 percent of those redeeming gift cards on Monday were spending over the value of the card.
According to ShopperTrak RCT Corp., the week after Christmas accounted for 10 percent of holiday sales last year, but analysts expect that period could account for as much as 14 percent this year, given gift cards' soaring popularity.
The National Retail Federation estimates that consumers will spend $18.48 billion on gift cards, this holiday season, up 6.6 percent from a year ago, based on a survey conducted by BIGresearch. But plenty of malls and stores are seeing far larger increases.