Carl Goodwin of Mesa returned a candle wall sconce "that doesn’t go with anything," for cash, which does fit well with his decor. Michael Chapin, 7, of Mesa brought back a red bike that had a bad back wheel.
"We think Santa landed on it," said his mother, Mary Chapin.
But the line for returns at the Wal-Mart Supercenter where Goodwin and Chapin returned unwanted items was nearly nonexistent Monday morning, while the dozen or so cashiers ringing up new sales were swamped.
Big bargains, especially on Christmas merchandise and seasonal items such as sweaters and coats, are the big lures for day-after-Christmas shoppers, said Stacey Szluka, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Typically Dec. 26 is one of the top-10 shopping days of the year, Szluka said. In 2004, retailers rang up 10.3 percent of their November-December sales in the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
This year, with most people off work Monday because Christmas fell on a Sunday, and with the simultaneous start of Hanukkah, Monday’s share of the holiday sales should be even higher than in previous years, she said.
At a Gilbert Wal-Mart, returns added up to about 15 percent of Monday’s business, said store manager Tony Vanos.
"That’s three times more than on a normal day but light for the day after Christmas," Vanos said.
Lots more people were stocking up on half-price wreaths, wrapping paper and cosmetic gift packages than returning items, he said.
A surge in gift card purchases in recent years may be a major factor in minimizing the number of returns on what in past decades used to be the big day for exchanging unwanted gifts or wrong-size clothing, said Denise Hart, spokeswoman for Arizona Mills mall in Tempe.
"We had a big surge in gift card sales last week. They give people the chance to buy what they really want," Hart said.
At the Tempe mall, Monday started off slow, but by mid-morning the parking lot was packed, she said.
Not so at Scottsdale Fashion Square, where early morning crowds arrived before the retailers.
"It looked like Black Friday," said Chris Stallman, the shopping center’s senior marketing manager, referring to the day after Thanksgiving when people swarm into stores before dawn looking for bargains. "It even beat the final days before Christmas for traffic."
More than 200 people lined up outside Crate & Barrel before opening time, and at least 100 waited for Dillard’s to unlock the doors, Stallman said.
"Crate & Barrel was scary. I just grabbed what I could and got in line," said Melissa Nelson of San Diego, who was visiting family in the Valley for the holidays.
Kristy Coup of Fountain Hills, waited for 30 minutes to pay for her armloads of kitchen stuff at the popular store.
"It’s worth it," she said. "I love Crate & Barrel. We come every year."
At Nordstrom, a big sale in men’s clothing sent Chris McBride, who feels crushed in crowds, seeking space and a bench near the shoe department while her husband browsed.
McBride had already "Christmas" shopped Monday for her daughter and family who are arriving from out-oftown this week to celebrate the holiday late.
McBride said she found a $200 suit for her daughter at Macy’s for $132 and other equally impressive bargains.
Diane Langer of Fountain Hills and several other friends hit the sales pre-dawn Dec. 26 every year.
"We run like rats into Dillard’s when they open the doors, run for the Santas and hope we don’t get trampled," Langer said. "Nobody on my cul de sac was up at 7 a.m. this morning except four vans full of women going shopping."
Paula Carlson of Chandler also collects Santa figurines and made the dash through Dillard’s with Langer.
"It’s a tradition — breakfast and bargains," she said.
Day after Christmas shopping is a new tradition for Brenda and Mike Ballesteros of Mesa, who decided to check out the sales on Christmas decorations Monday because both had a day off work.
After packing their pickup with bargains on everything from garlands to ornaments, Brenda Ballesteros, who said she does entirely different Christmas decor every year, said they spent about $160 for more than $300 worth of decorations.
"Now we’ll come every year," she said. "The sales are incredible."