Major shippers like UPS and FedEx are predicting strong peak holiday volume despite a lackluster start to the season in sales at major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Limited Brands...

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DECATUR, Ga. — Major shippers like UPS and FedEx are predicting strong peak holiday volume despite a lackluster start to the season in sales at major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Limited Brands and Federated Department Stores.

They attribute their projections to a spurt in online and direct-to-consumer shipping from small, specialty retailers. They also note that many shoppers may be waiting until the last minute to buy their gifts, which could skew the early-season numbers.

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“There are more consumers waiting to finish their holiday shopping on Dec. 24 than any other time in the last five years,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C.

At a suburban Atlanta FedEx-Kinko’s store yesterday, a steady stream of customers unloaded boxes filled with holiday gifts.

Cheryl Aschland, a sales representative from Atlanta, brought her own dolly, piled high with boxes of telescopes, dolls and tools destined for relatives in South Dakota.

“That’s not even all there is, but that’s all I can handle this trip,” said Aschland, who planned to return later with more gifts.

Judy Gurganus, a retiree from Decatur, borrowed a dolly from the store to unload gift boxes filed with china, crystal and a ham she was sending to friends in Colorado. She had already filled out the shipping documents and packed the items herself.

“It’s cheaper this way,” Gurganus said. “I like to have everything done in advance. It saves time. When I’m sitting at home drinking my morning coffee, I make them out. When I get here, [the clerk is] ready to go.”

The Decatur store allows drop-offs 24 hours a day and yesterday was filled with dozens of holiday boxes that had been dropped off the day before.

Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx expected to deliver 7.7 million packages yesterday, its peak holiday shipping day. Atlanta-based UPS expects to deliver 20 million packages on its peak day, Dec. 21.

The projections come as the holiday season so far has offered a mixed bag on the retail side.

In the days after Thanksgiving, some retailers said they had a disappointing start to the holiday season. Downbeat reports came from across the sector, including Wal-Mart, Limited Brands, Federated Department Stores, and the Bombay Co. With less than two weeks of shopping left until Christmas, the nation’s malls and stores stepped up discounts over the weekend, but business appeared to be mixed. High-end stores continued to do well, but stores aimed at lower- to middle-income consumers struggled.

Also, online holiday spending, excluding travel and auctions, was $8.41 billion between Nov. 1 and Dec. 5, up 23 percent from a year ago and on track to meet estimates, according to Internet research company comScore Networks.

Jordan Colletta, e-commerce vice president for UPS, said holiday shoppers are procrastinating more these days. Based on a survey of 1,000 shoppers, conducted by International Council of Shopping Centers over a four-day period ended Sunday, only 13 percent had completed their holiday buying — much lower than the group expected.

UPS, which offers drop-off and pack-and-ship service through its 3,600 The UPS Stores and 384 Mail Boxes Etc. stores in the United States, said its projected peak shipping day will be two days later this year than last, though Colletta noted there also are two extra days in this year’s holiday shipping season.

“In my experience over the years, it’s really a matter of timing,” Colletta said. “We kind of all live our lives based on how much time we have available. From that perspective, we build our plans and projections understanding how customers’ needs have to be served.”

Bram Johnson, an executive vice president in FedEx’s ground division, said the company is seeing a lot of holiday traffic in its 1,200 Kinko’s stores. FedEx bought the copy-shop chain earlier this year for $2.4 billion.

“Peak’s going to be very good,” Johnson said. “Maybe people are waiting later this year, who knows? We certainly see our peak being pushed closer to Christmas than ever before.”