Shoppers were making lists and checking them twice this weekend — and then sticking to them, holding out for good deals that analysts say could be coming this week.
While heavy traffic and little sign of clearance discounts during the weekend are clear improvements for retailers from last year's dismal season, many are still taking a wait-and-see approach.
"I'm playing chicken with retailers, still, until next weekend," said Matt Schuld, a shopper at a Target in Portland, Ore. He said a good deal is "imperative, as always."
Schuld might win the staredown. Retailers will begin amping up deals this week, NPD analyst Marshal Cohen said.
"This weekend is the last weekend for retailers to try to get whatever they could. Now it's the consumer's turn," he said. "Every retailer will pick a different day this week to deepen the discounts. Fifty percent off will be the starting point, and it will go up to 60 percent and 75 percent off within the store."
He expects shoppers to spend marginally more than last year. Electronics and cold-weather clothing like sweaters and scarves are among the most popular sellers.
Retailers have cut down on inventory all year and planned holiday sales well in advance this year.
BMO Capital Markets analyst John Morris, who tracks the amount and the depth of sales through his "sale rack index" said the index was up 8 percent this year but said it wasn't accelerating like last year.
"We're still not seeing retailers hit the panic button," he said. "It's still relatively controlled."
Grappling with the weak economy and high unemployment, consumers have been skittish on spending this year. But there are signs that is improving. The Commerce Department reported Friday sales rose 1.3 percent last month, after a 1.1 percent October gain, the healthiest advance since August and more than double the increase economists had expected.
In addition, Thanksgiving weekend sales were modestly positive, raising hopes for the shopping season.
Consumer spending, which drives 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, is crucial to any sustained rebound.
Meanwhile, online sales were positive. For the week ended Friday, online sales rose 4 percent to $4.64 billion. From Nov. 1 through Friday, sales rose 3 percent to $19.94 billion, Internet research firm comScore said Sunday.
"We saw above average growth rates, including a strong end to the week," said comScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni.
Malls across the country reported full parking lots but careful shoppers.
"There are definitely more people out there shopping," said Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney, a global management consultant. But she said they are still looking for the next wave of discounts.
Traci Ness, 41, at a Kohl's in Milwaukee, said she is focused on taking advantage of discounts.
"I'm using my coupons more than ever and looking for coupons more," she said. "It's almost like a game in a way to be able to use your coupons."
At the Mall at Short Hills, N.J., on Saturday, traffic was heavy with shoppers focusing on big discounts. Bloomingdale's let shoppers take an extra 30 percent off on all reduced handbags, for a total savings of anywhere from 45 percent to 65 percent. For Saturday only, AnnTaylor offered customers a 40 percent discount off any single full-price item. Abercrombie & Fitch was offering a $25 gift card with a $100 purchase.
In Columbia, Md., at a local mall, Kay Jewelers was offering 25 to 60 percent off items and Gymboree Corp. percent off everything.
At the Mall of America in Minneapolis, traffic was up compared with last year. Shoppers are "buying what they can within their means," said Maureen Bausch, the mall's executive vice president. "They'll invest in one very nice item that will last a while."
Michael Himes, 31, a paralegal from Queens, N.Y., shopping Saturday at Queens Center Mall, is determined not to add debt this year while shopping for his wife and two children.
"We're definitely buying less. We just paid off the credit cards, and we don't want to mess it up."
Associated Press writers Jacques Billeaud in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Emily Fredrix in Milwaukee; Benjamin Greene Baltimore, Md.; Anne D'Innocenzio and Michael Lee in New York; Laura Impellizzeri in San Francisco; and Sarah Skidmore in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.
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