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Last-minute Christmas shopping a way of life for some

Robert Maloney Jr. of South Tampa calls himself the consummate last-minute Christmas shopper. He never buys a tree until the last week and begins gift shopping on Dec. 24.

“It’s the way I roll,” the health services information technology specialist said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of needing that last paycheck to do it just right.”

This year Maloney never did buy a tree, even though the proprietor of his garden shop alerted him that he’d fallen behind.

But Maloney was right on schedule to begin his typical last minute shopping spree to the delight of two ex-wives, his daughters and friends who razzed him on Facebook

Maloney headed to the Barnes & Noble in downtown Tampa early Tuesday afternoon, where he got started by relying on social media to ask relatives what gifts they might like.

He joined thousands of last minute shoppers who visited stores large and small throughout the Tampa Bay area on Christmas Eve.

Contrary to stereotypical images of panicked last minute shoppers, those interviewed — like Maloney — seemed to know just what they’d bargained for in shopping Tuesday. Many toted bags of purchases.

That pleased merchants from speciality shops, big box stores like Target and malls like Tampa’s International Plaza, where parking places were at a premium.

With the shortest Thanksgiving-to-Christmas shopping season in 11 years — 26 days compared with 32 a year ago — retailers were banking on last-minute shopping to turn the tables on the most recent shopping data and projections.

Those, such as a ShopperTrak report, indicate store sales declined by about 1 to 3 percentage points during the first three weeks of December compared with last year.

But business at many shops appeared brisk on Tuesday afternoon and local streets and parking lots were congested, presumably with shoppers.

“Like every Christmas Eve, it started off slowly,” said Nina Mahoney, marketing and sponsorship director at International Plaza on Tuesday afternoon. “But now it’s really picked up and exceeding what we expected.”

The stores were scheduled to close at 6 p.m., but Mahoney said she and Santa Claus would be on hand until all the youngsters were accommodated.

Part of the draw was ongoing sales launched in the past few days that savvy shoppers pursued, getting an early start on post-Christmas bargains.

Express was offering 50 percent off clothing except gift cards, American Eagle Outfitters offered all jeans for less than $40, Gap offered discounts up to 60 percent on select styles while Abercrombie & Fitch offered 50 percent off on a sale that began about 10 days ago.

It’s not known how much longer those sales might last, clerks said.

That didn’t concern Gary Williams of Clearwater, who was lounging in a soft sofa between the Gucci and Swarovski shops at International Plaza, while his wife shopped for a pair of shoes.

“I’m not shopping, I’m just people watching,” Anderson said. But Anderson said he didn’t finish shopping until Monday, though half of it was online and half mostly in big box store like Best Buy and Target.

Elizabeth Ferguson of Niagara On The Lake, Ontario, in Tampa to visit family with her husband, bought purses on Christmas Eve for her grandchildren. But the Fergusons brought half their gifts from Canada and also shopped International Plaza earlier in the week.

“This is it,” Ferguson said. “It’s over.”

That was not the case for Maloney, who was just getting started a couple of miles away at the Barnes & Noble, where last-minute shoppers could take advantage of a program by volunteers for the National Organization For Transplant Enlightenment, who accepted donations for gift wrapping books for their charity.

“People typically know just what they want when they shop on the last three days before Christmas,” store manager Jim Olson said. “They ask for specific books.”

But Maloney was still consulting his smart phone, laughing off friendly Facebook comments from an ex-wife who proclaimed, “Nothing new” with you.

“Will I get done on time?” Maloney asked at 2:45 p.m. “Sure. The store will be open until 6.”

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