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Christmas Comes Slowly To Austerity-hit Europe

By SARAH DiLORENZO

PARIS (AP) â¿¿ Across Europe, holiday "shoppers" this season are doing more browsing than buying.

Retailers remain hopeful for a last-minute burst of Christmas consumerism, and some governments are encouraging it by allowing stores to open on Sunday. But with economies across the region slowing and unemployment soaring, analysts say holiday spending in Europe is bound to disappoint for the fourth year in a row.

In Rome, some shopkeepers say holiday sales are down 20 percent from last year. In Paris, refurbished second-hand toys are attracting buyers. And in Spain, which has Europe's highest unemployment rate, some families are contemplating whether to give gifts at all.

As in the U.S., holiday shopping is vital to many businesses: British non-food retailers can make up to 50 percent of their profits in the end-of-year push. In Germany, holiday business accounts for 30 percent of annual toy sales.

But the arc of the holiday shopping seasons is a little different in every country. The Dutch open presents on Dec. 5, the eve of St. Nicholas day and the last night of their "Sinterklaas" celebration. In Spain, many children tear open presents on Jan. 6, when tradition has it the Three Wise Men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. In Britain, France and most of Europe gifts are exchanged on Dec. 25.

As the 17-country eurozone slips back into recession, this festive season may mark a new normal for Europe, analysts say. Gone are the heady days when every holiday season meant a new record breached for sales. Instead, shops will have to fight it out for shoppers, hunting for bargains and quality and willing to wait for both.

"Every year it comes later," said Joachim Stoll, who co-owns Leder-Stoll OHG, a leather and luggage retailer just off the glittering Zeil pedestrian shopping quarter in Frankfurt, Germany. "People wait longer and longer, even after Christmas."

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