As you rush into the holiday shopping season, you may catch a whiff of cookies baking at the mall or find a note from a roving elf on your iPhone or get a coupon by text message.

Across the nation, retailers and mall owners are trying to spark the holiday spirit with longer hours, more live music, twittering elves and even fresh-baked cookies.

Simon Property Group, the nation's largest mall owner, plans to give away more than 2 million bite-size chocolate chip cookies this season in partnership with Nestle's Tollhouse brand.

Cathi Weiner, a senior vice president at Simon Brand Ventures, calls it retail aromatherapy.

"I can't think of anything that can fit into it more ¿ warm cookies in the mall and that type of comfort food feel," she said.

Shoppers will be able to snag several morsels at a time, along with a Nestle coupon during the promotion, which starts Black Friday, Nov. 27, at 100 locations and runs each weekend through Christmas. But it's strictly BYOM: bring your own milk.

Taubman Centers, with 24 malls nationwide, plans to focus on store employees by delivering breakfast to thousands of workers the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday and traditionally seen as the launch date for the holiday shopping season.

The mall management company also plans to treat store employees to midday massages.

"We wanted our retailers to be at their peak performance," said Taubman spokeswoman Karen MacDonald.

Shoppers also will get free breakfast at Taubman malls in Los Angeles, Miami, Dearborn, Mich., and Wellington, Fla., while others will offer free parking.

¿ AP Retail Writer Ashley M. Heher


More stores offer 'extreme' shopping

NEW YORK (AP) ¿ Bargain hunters looking to nab deals right after (or before) devouring their turkey are being bombarded with even more shopping options this year.

Gap Inc. spokeswoman Louise Callagy said 700 Old Navy stores and 300 Gap and Banana Republic stores will open for five hours at noon on Thanksgiving Day. That's more than double the number that opened on the holiday last year. The openings will kick off three-day sales: Old Navy, for example, will offer sweaters at $15 and 50 percent off outerwear.

Toys R Us Inc., which considered opening on Thanksgiving Day, is instead throwing open the doors at its Toys R Us stores just after 12 a.m. Nov. 27, the day after. That's five hours earlier than last year, said company spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh. Its Babies R Us stores will open at 5 a.m. Nov. 27.

Mall operator Macerich Co. said 11 of its 72 malls will open right after 12:00 a.m. Black Friday, compared with two last year.

¿ AP Retail Writer Anne D'Innocenzio


Sour outlook for holiday gift cards

NEW YORK (AP) ¿ Gift card sales, which took a hit last year, are not expected to revive this holiday season as shoppers stretch their budgets by buying at deep discounts.

Brian Riley, senior analyst at research firm The Tower Group, predicts a 7 percent drop in gift card sales from a year ago. He said lean inventories will also hurt gift card sales because they will make shoppers nervous there will be nothing for recipients to buy once they have the cards.

"This is a bad sign for the holiday season," Riley said. "Gift cards give retailers a captive audience."

Consumers surveyed by BIGResearch for the National Retail Federation said they will spend slightly less on gift cards this holiday season, an average of $139.10, compared with $147.33 last year. The average card will be worth $39.80, compared with $40.54 in 2008, according to the survey.

Shoppers said their main objection is that the cards are impersonal. But they also want to take advantage of deals retailers are offering on purchases and they're worried about expiration dates or fees. A smaller percentage said they fear a retailer might go out of business.

On average, chief marketing officers at top U.S. retailers expect gift card sales to account for just 5 percent of holiday sales, down from nearly 12 percent in 2008, according to a survey conducted by accounting and consulting company BDO Seidman LLP.

¿ AP Retail Writer Anne D'Innocenzio

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