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Bargain-Hunters Return To Stores After Huge Holiday Shopping Season

They braved the cold and descended, gift cards and bags of unwelcome presents in hand, on Westfarms mall, lured by after-Christmas markdowns and the promise of exchanging the imperfect gift for the perfect one.

Between the sales, the returns and the gift cards, Dec. 26 is “one of the biggest days of the year” at Westfarms, said Amanda Sirica, a mall spokeswoman. “The holiday shopping season doesn’t just end on Dec. 24 at 6 p.m.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the West Hartford mall was teeming with shoppers hunting for bargains, or to swap their unwanted gifts for something better. Stores beckoned shoppers inside with promises of steep markdowns.

Samantha Moran likened it to “a second wave of Black Friday, low-key.”

“It’s like 50 percent off at every single store, so it’s really nice,” said her friend, Sydney White. The two classmates, both from Avon, were hoping to spend gift cards they’d received for Christmas. White had already stopped at Sephora and Lululemon; Moran was hunting for sneakers and “some cool statement pieces.”

“We’re going to college soon,” she explained, “so I want to build my wardrobe.”

This year’s holiday shopping season was the strongest in a dozen years, said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a New Canaan-based retail research group. He estimates this year’s sales were up 5.7 percent from last year, the best showing since 2005.

The National Retail Federation gauged total sales for this year’s holiday season — which still has a little less than a week to go — at $682 billion. The trade association’s calculations were slightly less rosy than Johnson’s, estimating a 4 percent uptick in sales from last year.

Ana Serafin Smith, a spokeswoman for the group, pointed to high consumer confidence, steady or low unemployment and recent wage growth as drivers of holiday spending.

“It’s enough for consumers to feel happy and confident enough to spend a little more cash, or go into a little credit card debt with the confidence they’ll be able to pay it off after the holiday season,” she said.

Thomas Austin, a 19-year-old freshman at Fordham University, said he’d spent more money this year on gifts because he’d landed his first job at a restaurant near campus.

“Now that I make money with an actual job, I’ve been buying gifts for family members,” Austin said. He wasn’t done yet. On Tuesday, the Sudbury, Mass., resident was picking out clothes for his girlfriend at Urban Outfitters and Banana Republic.

This year’s robust shopping season was also spurred by online commerce, Johnson said, which commanded 19 percent of all holiday sales this year.

As online shopping grows in popularity, so too do the piles of goods returned after the holidays, said Carly Llewellyn, a spokeswoman for Optoro, a technology startup that helps companies manage returns and exchanges. Based on data from Optoro and the National Retail Federation, Llewellyn estimates consumers will return $90 billion in goods this holiday season, up from $60 billion the previous year. While patrons of brick-and-mortar stores tend to return only about 8 percent of their purchases, online shoppers can return as much as 30 percent of what they buy, Llewellyn said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Ed Baronicini was spending his day off at Westfarms, helping his kids return gifts and spend their gift cards at H&M and Microsoft. “There’s still some festive spirit,” Baroncini said, standing in the mall’s main hall, where Santa Claus had held court until recently. “It beats staying home and doing nothing.”

Sovereign Johnson, 14, was walking gingerly through the main hall, a pair of new Adidas trainers on his feet. His brother Jaeland Dubose, 23, had bought them for him as a belated Christmas present.

“He’s been talking about them for a little while,” Dubose said, “so we decided to come check them out, wear them out, and I grabbed them for him.”

Shoppers swirled around them. There were presents to be returned, gift cards to be redeemed.

“I kind of like the mall when there’s a lot going on,” Dubose said. “I like the energy.”

Courant staff writer Stephen Singer contributed to this story.

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