Stores prod shoppers with e-mails, Tweets

“Last chance ... for 6 cent prints today” from Ritz Camera.

“Limited time! Save on holiday treats tonight ‘til 10 p.m.” from Cost Plus World Market.

“Sprint to save up to 70 percent on new sale items” from home decor store West Elm.

Retailers are leaving no stone unturned -- and no technology unused -- as they try to prod consumers into one last purchase. Or two or three, for that matter.

Dan Springer, CEO of San Bruno, Calif.-based Responsys, an e-mail marketing firm, said e-mail and social media marketing among his clients who advertised the last two years is up 35 to 40 percent this year. Responsys will send 25 billion e-mails for clients this year, he said, translating to about $70 million in revenue.

The flurry of retailer e-mails, Tweets and Facebook fan pages reflect the heightened stakes of this year’s season. Many retailers have suffered through tough years and count on the holiday push for profits, if not survival.

The National Retail Federation predicts holiday spending nationwide will decline 1 percent to $437.6 billion. The last year holiday sales increased was 2007, when they rang in at $457.8 billion.

For many years, the Saturday before Christmas, or Super Saturday, was the busiest shopping day of the year, said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, a trade group made of the nation’s largest retailers.

But Grannis believes Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, will turn out to be the busiest shopping day of 2009, as it was in 2008. Store and Web site visits on this year’s Black Friday rose to 195 million from 172 million a year earlier, she said. But average spending dropped to $343.31 from $372.57.

Last weekend on Super Saturday, national sales fell to $6.9 billion, compared to $7.9 billion last year and $8.7 billion in 2007, estimated Chicago firm ShopperTrak. The decrease was largely attributed to the snowstorms in the midwest and east, and the firm said Friday and Sunday were expected to post gains.

Retailers and malls are increasing their use of e-mail appeals and social media like Facebook and Twitter.

On Dec. 16, for example, Cost Plus World Market sent an e-mail at 6:42 p.m. about a Christmas candy sale that ended at 10 p.m. that night. The deals weren’t breathtaking -- about $2 off $9.99 tins of peppermint bark and foil-wrapped German chocolates. But the intent was to spur shoppers to take action.

Retailers in some cases buy lists of consumer e-mails, but they also have customers opt-in to receive special offers, either at registers, or through loyalty programs and store credit card programs.

Atlantan Lynne Meadows, a self-described shopaholic, said she loves getting e-mails from her favorite retailers, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, and her son’s, Old Navy, Gap and Target.

“I use it as to compare prices, especially on name brands like Gucci. And typically if they’re going to send you an e-mail, they advertise sale items or send coupons. To me it’s not overwhelming. If I don’t need it, it’s just a simple delete.”

But Lisa Swanson, also of Atlanta, said enough to all the Tweets. “The way Twitter is set up on the Blackberry, you have to click on a post to read the whole message and it winds up being totally useless,” she said. “I feel like they’ve just gone crazy with it.”

Springer, the CEO of Responsys, said retailers run the risk of annoying consumers.

“You cannot annoy people into liking you and marketers should not try to do that,” he said.

He said the message must be relevant to a consumer -- offering a discount on a product the retailer knows the recipient likes.

General Growth Properties, owner of Perimeter Mall, launched Facebook and Twitter fan pages for its malls about six weeks ago.

Other metro Atlanta malls have pages as well, including Town Center at Cobb.

These pages link to discounts and special offers from retailers as well as promote mall or store events. Perimeter’s Facebook page has 78 fans while Town Center’s Twitter page has 478 followers.

John Heavener, president of the Georgia Retail Association, said he hears mixed messages from the state’s larger retailers.

“Children and teen stores are probably doing double digit increases over last year,” he said. Electronics are also trending up, he said, but department stores are a mixed bag. Based on estimates from retailers and his own analysis, he predicts holiday sales in Georgia will be flat to up about a half-percent over last year. Georgia represents about 3 percent of total national retail sales, Heavener said.

John Mori, president of Mori Luggage & Gifts, a small Atlanta chain, believes a long-awaited uptick arrived this season.

“Our sales are running 16 percent ahead of last December on a comparative store basis,” he said. He said his core customers’ confidence rose with the stock market, translating to more sales of computer briefcases, Montblanc pens and Vera Bradley bags.

“It’s the true turnaround that we’ve been waiting for,” he said, “And it basically happened on December first.”

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