AUSTRALIANS will cram hundreds of millions of dollars of spending into the next three days as part of a nationwide gift splurge in the final weekend before Christmas, with shopping centre retailers and the new breed of online stores locked in a furious fight for every sale until the holidays begin.
Roughly $30 billion is expected to be spent at the shops this month and retail experts believe the fall of Christmas Day so soon after the weekend for the first time in five years will see consumers make a last desperate dash for shops on Saturday and Sunday.
''People are shopping later and later every year,'' said Margy Osmond, chief executive of the Australian National Retailers Association. ''Normally it's the second week out from Christmas that is very big.
''The assumption is now that this weekend is going to be really, really big because people have now left their shopping so late - possibly generated by the fact we have a Saturday, Sunday, Monday before Christmas and people maybe have a false sense of security they can do the bulk of their shopping then.'' Most online retailers have come to the end of their Christmas shopping rush as shoppers who want guaranteed delivery before presents are unwrapped on Tuesday morning needed to have picked and clicked their online purchases earlier this week. Some of the major chains, such as Myer, have been promising Christmas delivery for anything bought online up until December 17.
Now the offline world dominates. Westfield, the nation's biggest operator of shopping centres, kicked off a 33-hour round-the-clock trade at its Parramatta centre last week and the group's NSW and Victorian shopping centres had a string of midnight openings which will extend to opening on Christmas eve.
''If shoppers want to buy in a mall then we have got the best
malls, if they want to buy online then we have an online marketplace, and if they want to use our digital channels to search for products and get content and inspiration and then go to a mall - we want to be there,'' said Westfield's director of marketing, John Batistich.
Mr Batistich said research showed shopping malls and centres were strong in the final two weeks before Christmas.
''That's the time when you are not really sure your purchases can get delivered home on time, so we see the peak of online ordering occurring in that first and second week of December.''
Despite attention now turning to shopping centres and suburban strips, the online sector is expected to book another double-digit growth in sales this Christmas, making it the biggest holiday season ever for the industry, with up to 6 per cent of pre-Christmas sales conducted over the web.
One research group believes online Christmas sales will jump as high as 30 per cent this year.
A report from Deloitte Access Economics argues that for the first time in three years the broader macro-economic conditions point to retailers, both online and physical stores, making some money this year, thanks to a string of interest rate cuts, solid wages growth and a possible lull in declining house prices.
''Seeing broader market sales growth is no doubt a welcome change for retailers but it is still a challenging environment,'' said a Deloitte partner, David Rumbens.
The CommSec economist Savanth Sebastian said the economic environment suggested activity had stepped up late last month and retail sales for this month should be slightly better.
''I think Christmas will be relatively resilient,'' he said. ''Consumers aren't out there spending to a great degree and maybe a lot of consumers have bought goods on discount.
''Retail sales seem to be crawling up off a low base.''
And the most popular gift? According to retailers, it remains the gift voucher.