Retailers lucked out with an extra shopping weekend before Christmas, and many of them are banking on the last surge of customers to lift the spending lull that has dragged on since Thanksgiving.
Thursday kicked off a streak of four of the 10 busiest shopping days of the year, and retailers are unleashing big discounts to lure customers and drive up holiday spending, which accounts for up to 40 percent of annual sales at some stores.
Super Saturday -- the mother of the final shopping days -- is expected to bring droves of customers to shopping malls and local businesses, despite the bad weather expected to hit the Bay Area. And with Christmas on a Tuesday this year, retailers have the long weekend ahead for an extended shopping streak, and many shoppers will have a break from work and school to spend more time at the mall.
Retail experts at Experian predict Saturday will be a bigger shopping day for brick-and-mortar stores than Black Friday. Furla, a luxury handbag store at the upscale shopping center Santana Row in San Jose, is hoping for big crowds after the disappointment last weekend.
"Last Saturday we didn't do as much business as we thought, but I'm thinking this Saturday is going to be the busiest shopping day of the holiday season," said store manager Jacqueline James. "That volume is really going to come through on Saturday."
Weather forecasts for rain and wind across the Bay Area for the next few days may help pack the malls. Carrie Williams, director of marketing at Stoneridge Shopping Center in Pleasanton, said the mall usually benefits from bad weather because it's dry and warm, and people have room to walk around.
If it gets too windy and cold, outdoor shopping centers may lose some customers. But this late in the game, people have few options if they hope to finish their shopping list before Christmas.
"At this point in the holiday season," Williams said, "there's not much that's going to stop people from shopping."
The final shopping days promise to break the sluggish streak that followed Black Friday. The threat of the fiscal cliff, which could trigger tax increases and spending cuts that would hurt consumers, has discouraged shoppers during the crucial weeks leading up to St. Nick's arrival. Superstorm Sandy and the trauma of the Connecticut school shootings, which kept many families home last weekend and away from stores, led some analysts to cut sales forecasts. ShopperTrak, which analyzes customer traffic, has revised its holiday sales projections from 3.3 percent to 2.5 percent above last year.
"There's enough bad news out there that the consumer will be concerned a little bit," said Billy Martin, ShopperTrak founder.
He said the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary prompted some families to rethink Christmas gifts: "They're really just trying to figure out how to give hugs to their kids instead of toys."
Despite the shifting consumer mood, analysts say the overall economic picture is good -- most stores are hitting or exceeding their projections, and even with limping sales over the last few weeks, holiday sales are expected to be up over last year.
Super Saturday may bring the traffic retailers have been waiting for. Some experts are projecting sales could match or exceed Black Friday, when retailers raked in $11.2 billion.
"It's just a big, big day," said Daniel Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations for the National Retail Federation. "It's as important a day as Black Friday."
East Bay resident Miriam Ezzura said she will be out shopping this weekend to pick up gifts for four people on her list. Ezzura made a stop after work Thursday at Macy's in Walnut Creek to pick up a gift for her niece, but she said she sill had a lot of shopping to do. She works at a center for disabled adults in Lafayette and won't have a day off until Saturday.
"I hope they have some good sales this weekend," she said.
Ezzura isn't likely to be disappointed. Retailers are preparing for the busy day with attractive sales. Popular clothing stores like Banana Republic and Ann Taylor Loft are offering 40 percent discounts that are likely to extend until Christmas Eve. Gap stores are slashing prices by up to 50 percent and The Children's Place, a children's clothing chain, has an online sale that offers 75 percent discounts.
"All of them are attempting to try to get their share of the customers," Martin said.
In this hypercompetitive environment, retailers are working hard for every customer and every sale. Look no further than Macy's and Toys R Us, two of the major retailers that will remain open for more than 80 hours starting Saturday morning to offer round-the-clock shopping.
But retailers also need to clean house and make room for spring inventory, and the quickest way to do that is by slashing prices.
"The name of the game is to be clean on fall goods by January," Butler said. Stores need to clear racks for shorts and bathing suits.
But some customers said they preferred to forgo the Super Saturday sales to avoid the crowds. In downtown Walnut Creek on Thursday afternoon, parking garages were full and stores humming with shoppers who, done with school and work for the holidays, were wrapping up their shopping before the weekend rush. Melissa Barker, a graduate student at St. Mary's College, paused for lunch with her daughter, 9-year-old Michaela after shopping for three hours straight.
She planned to finish her list that day and not battle the mobs over the weekend, but said she had a few items being held at Macy's, so if she decides to buy them, she "can come back at crazy hours" to finish shopping.
Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.