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U.S. stores hope "Mega Monday" led to brisk sales

By Jessica Wohl

(Reuters) - Shoppers found a mixed bag of bargains and so-so deals on Monday, as a day off for many Americans lured some out for what was likely to be the third-busiest shopping day of the holiday season.

Chains were also hoping that shoppers coming in to redeem the millions of gift cards given as presents might be willing to spend a bit more cash of their own.

Many retailers were still relying on bargains to entice shoppers on the day after Christmas.

In 2010, chains rang up about $62 billion in sales during the final week of the year, about 12 percent of the total for the holiday season, despite some major snowstorms.

"This year we'll blow through that, with about $72 billion in sales for this retail 'second season,'" said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners.

Retailers could sell as much as $29 billion worth of merchandise on Monday alone, eclipsing the $27 billion in sales on Black Friday, Johnson said on Monday morning, as he saw parking lots at suburban malls and outlet malls filling up.

Some areas such as Chicago's Michigan Avenue had smaller morning crowds than on the busy day after Thanksgiving.

Internet offers were popular, especially on Christmas, when most stores were closed. Target Corp, for example, offered $10 off online orders of $50 or more on Christmas.

Online sales on Christmas Day rose 16.4 percent from 2010, and were up 10 percent as of 3 p.m. EST on December 26, according to IBM.

The National Retail Federation expects holiday season sales to rise 3.8 percent to a record $469.1 billion, slower than last year's growth but stronger than its preseason forecast.

The potential shopping boom comes as a weak labor market that has dragged on the economy shows signs of a turn. The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits hit a 3-1/2-year low in the week shortly before Christmas, and consumer sentiment scaled a six-month high in December, with more Americans optimistic about the economic outlook.

Still, U.S. consumer spending, which accounts for about two-third of U.S. economic activity, rose less than expected in November.

This year marked the first time in six years that the day after Christmas fell on a Monday. Some dubbed it "Mega Monday" as the day takes on more prominence for shoppers, especially those who have the day off.

Shoppers who made their way to Saks Fifth Avenue in Boston's Prudential Center mall said the 60 percent and 70 percent discounts were well worth fighting the crowds.

"It was a stampede at 8 a.m.," said Sarah Klein, 46, a teacher from Cambridge, who said people were grabbing fistfuls of discount handbags when the doors opened.

THIRD-BUSIEST SHOPPING DAY

Four in 10 Americans plan on hitting stores over the next few days, while 46 percent have no plans to shop, according to a poll from Consumer Reports. Of those who said they planned to shop, 82 percent said the biggest draw was post-holiday sales, 47 percent wanted to redeem gift cards and 31 percent expected to return gifts.

This year, December 26 is expected to be the third-busiest sales day, trailing Black Friday and Friday, December 23, according to ShopperTrak, which measures retail and mall foot traffic.

As procrastinators finished shopping in the days just before Christmas, December 23 overtook December 17 as the second-busiest day so far, said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak.

ShopperTrak predicted that up to 60 percent more shoppers will visit stores on December 26 than on the same day last year.

Among the deals offered on Monday, JC Penney Co Inc had coupons for $10 off purchases of $25 or more, while Gap Inc's Old Navy offered those spending $20 in its stores a coupon worth $10 toward a future purchase.

Still, some shoppers were not impressed with the deals.

Catherine Arora, 33, who was visiting Boston from Australia, said sales back home are much bigger on the December 26 Boxing Day holiday.

"So far, the sales are a bit underwhelming," she said while out hunting for clothes and shoes.

Retailers may have a glut of winter clothing due to warmer-than-usual weather, but they made smart bets on other items, meaning they should not have to resort to lots of steep discounts to clean out inventory, experts said.

Ken Ucho, a retired principal who now lives in La Porte, Indiana, said he came back to Chicago to shop and had few crowds to avoid early in the morning.

After visiting a number of stores, including Macy's and Bloomingdale's, Ucho, 69, said he saw crowds only at the upscale Neiman Marcus.

GIFT CARDS

Another Consumer Reports poll found that 113 million Americans received gift cards last holiday season, and that 62 percent of adults planned to give them as gifts this year.

Retailers hope that people redeeming gift cards will buy merchandise at full price and spend more than the value of the cards they are using.

"The best and the smartest retailers do put together promotions and merchandising in such a way to convince the consumer to spend more than what their gift card was," said John Squire of IBM's Smarter Commerce initiative.

The Hodgson family, from Cleveland, was in Boston for the holiday and decided to go shopping together on Monday rather than exchanging gifts. Siblings Matt, 29, Chris, 26, and Catie, 21, said they had some gift cards to use from relatives and expected their spending to top the cards' values.

Dawn Babbi, 26, said retailers had to have strong offers to get her to shop this year, especially as she does more of her shopping online, where she has found good discounts.

"I came out for discounted Christmas wrap for next year," Babbi said as she shopped at Target in Plattsburgh, New York, on Monday. "Why pay full price when you can get it half price?"

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Additional reporting by Lauren Keiper in Boston, James Kelleher in Chicago, Phil Wahba in Plattsburgh and Dena Aubin in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Dan Grebler)

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