MILLBURN, N.J.— Waiting until the last moment was the maxim for Christmas 2002.

Despite a brisk start to shopping the day after Thanksgiving, sales had slacked off and retailers were hoping for a last-minute rush. The story was similar last year when the week before Christmas accounted for 34 percent of holiday sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Although this year some stores were bustling the final four days before Christmas, those days did not deliver the hordes of consumers retailers desired. When the receipts are all counted, the National Retail Federation estimates sales will only squeak past last year's by 4 percent. "And that's with fingers crossed," added Rick Gallagher, a spokesman for the NRF. The NRF said sales improved 5.6 percent in 2001 versus 2000.

A glimpse of retail activity in New Jersey over the final four days found a host of shopping incentives like free gift certificates and price slashing.

Saturday, December 21 at 11 a.m. The Mall at Short Hills, Millburn, N.J.: Shoppers who did wait found heavy promotional activity — price slashing, more gifts with purchase and coupon incentives. That was evident at the valet-parking area at this tony shopping mall. Parking attendants handed out $50 gift cards to Escada to people taking advantage of the $8 valet service. Most shoppers opened the cards in disbelief and thought there must be "strings attached." Not surprisingly, Escada was busy.

Beauty departments at Nordstrom, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks and Bloomingdale’s were all relatively quiet. Instead, shoppers jammed the checkouts at Williams-Sonoma, Tiffany and Coach. At this mall, shoppers wanted the brand name for their dollar. Even if the gift was not pricey, it was important to flaunt a prestigious brand.

Sunday, December 22 at 11:30 a.m. Quaker Bridge Mall, West Windsor, N.J.: Parking is readily available — not a good sign for retailers with only three days to go. Entering through Sears, one of the biggest surprises of the shopping day awaits — women knocking each other over for fragrances. Shoppers didn’t seem aware of Sears’ dramatic exit in color cosmetics — it recently dropped Circle of Beauty. Sears has maintained an assortment of mostly mass-market fragrances from Coty, New Dana and some selected designers. Also, the company expanded the display for the holidays and that strategy appeared to pay off. With drugstores decreasing the number of scents stocked, Sears has emerged as a great stop for mass fragrances.Popping in to Hot Topic, young girls were searching through assortments of funky cosmetics. A few picked up items for themselves. A few doors away at Limited, Too, a slightly younger female audience crowded onto the sales floor. It was the final day to use Too Bucks - coupons good for $25 off purchases of $50 or more. To achieve that sales figure, several girls grabbed a new cosmetics line making a debut at the Limited, Too called Allie, themed around a teenage character of the same name.

Limited, Too has experimented with several beauty directions over the years. At one point, some stores featured tables where girls could "play" with cosmetics. After disappointing sales for such space commitment, Limited, Too went back to the drawing board. The Allie collection is the latest beauty entry. Using a character on packaging has become a popular tool for products marketed to tweens and teens. Pricing on Allie items is mostly under $10. A compact mirror, for example, retails for $4.50. The packaging has a quote from Allie: "I carry mine everywhere. You never know when the boy you’ve been checking out asks you to meet after class."

Monday, December 23 at 3 p.m.: CVS in Manville, N.J.: Finally, some last minute beauty shoppers are spotted. The shelves are stocked with good sales on fragrances, but most of the action is in nontraditional fragrance gifts. Two shoppers study a box containing 12 different nail colors and manicure tools. Another woman picks up a collection of bath salts. The fragrance shelves appear relatively untouched.

A few miles away at Target, the beauty aisles are also quiet. More shoppers are in the personal care department examining foot massagers and other at-home spa equipment. Target’s checkout lines are surprisingly short for the few hours before the big night. Although Christmas Eve is not traditionally a busy shopping night, stores such as discounters and drugstores tend to court last-minute customers.

Next stop, Wal-Mart, which was also quiet. According to Wal-Mart sources, the last-minute shopping spree the chain had hoped for never materialized.

The biggest crowds of the day are uncovered — at Bottle King, a liquor store. People wait 20 in line to pay for libations to make the season bright.Tuesday, December 24 at 9:30 p.m.: A Christmas Eve party in Cranford, N.J. Beauty was on the gift list at the gathering. One woman received expensive Santa Maria Novella lotion from Italy; an eight-year-old was happy with her Candy Corner gift set from the Lotta Luv Co. consisting of two Bubble Yum- flavored lip balms, a Blow Pop cherry-flavored gloss and one Tootsie Roll flavored. It was purchased at Claire’s.

Tuesday, December 24, 11:30 p.m. Walgreens in Kendall Park, N.J.: With only one-half hour left of Christmas Eve, shoppers at this new Walgreens are looking for emergency last-minute needs - not gifts. One shopper grabs batteries; another a bottle of Coca-Cola. Although it is clear there had been shopping in fragrances, it was also evident that shoppers will still find much to buy the day after Christmas.

Retail analysts estimate 10 percent of holiday sales are accrued in the week following Christmas. Based on visits to these retailers, post-Yule sales could be the magic to make or break the season. One Limited, Too employee said she had never seen so many gift cards sold, so that could bode well for after Christmas traffic. America’s Research Group said gift cards ranked as one of the top five gift choices this year. However, a snowstorm blanketed much of the Northeast, making shopping difficult on the day after Christmas. For most retailers, it wasn’t a jolly season. And, for beauty in particular, competition from other items proved to be stiff.

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