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CHICAGO-While the holiday season is still an important time of year for retailers, its nature is constantly changing. A changing consumer, advances in technology and the increasing use of gift cards have all impacted how shoppers spend their holiday-gift dollars, said speakers here at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ Fall Conference.

“What got us here is not going to get us to the next level,” says John Torella, senior partner at Toronto-based consulting firm J.C. Williams Co. “We’re going to have to be better at everything we do. [Consumers] have so much choice and so little loyalty.” International retailers pushing into North America, increasing consumer diversity and technology are all influencing consumer shopping patterns, he says.

Gift cards are increasingly becoming a standard present during the holidays. About $80 billion of them were bought last year, with a projected $151 billion to sell during next year’s holiday season, says Kristen Dembowiak, director of American Express Stored Value Group’s prepaid partnerships. “The spike that we see the day before Christmas is insane,” she says.

And retailer fears that gift cards take a while to spend are, in part, unfounded, says Dembowiak, who’s group is also the gift-card provider for such mall owners as CBL & Associates, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust and Westfield Group. About 74% of all gift cards are spent by the end of January, she says, so it’s important for stores to have their inventories replenished right after the holiday season.

However, there is still at least one retailer, Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear, that operates true to more of a traditional holiday model. Many shoppers at the 145-store chain prefer to buy apparel rather than gift cards, says Douglas Calvin, the company’s director of real estate.

“We consider to hold to the traditional holiday season,” he says, stressing that the third quarter is still important for the retailer – so important that it is planning 29 store openings this November alone.

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