NEW YORK - Shoppers who waited until the final days before Christmas were rewarded with big bargains and lighter crowds. But their last-minute deal hunting may hurt stores.
Although fresh data on the holiday shopping season won't be available until Christmas, analysts expect growth from last year to be modest. Several factors have dampened shoppers' spirits, including fears that the economy could fall off the "fiscal cliff," triggering tax increases and spending cuts early next year.
On Christmas Eve, Taubman Centers, which operates 28 malls across the country, reported a "very strong weekend." But many last-minute shoppers in cities including New York, Atlanta and Indianapolis were spending less than they did last year, and taking advantage of big discounts of up to 70 percent that hurt stores' profits.
Kris Betzold, 40, of Carmel, Ind., was out at the Fashion Mall at Keystone in Indianapolis on Monday looking for deals on toys, and said she's noticed the sales are "even better now than they were at Thanksgiving." She said the economy has prompted her and her husband to be more frugal this year.
"We under-budgeted ourselves by $400 for Christmas because we just wanted to put that money back in savings," she said.
Dianne Ashford, 40, was at the Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta on Monday, said she was spending $500 on gifts this year, down from the $1,000 she normally spends.
"Times are hard," said Ashford, who works for a film production company. The best deal she found this year was a guitar for her mother, half off at $79.
Other last-minute shoppers said they were holding off as much as possible for even bigger post-holiday sales.
Chris Ailes, a 37-year-old TV producer, also was at the Lenox Square on Monday to pick up last-minute gifts for his mom and grandmother. With the economy so shaky, he and his family are trying to cut back on spending. So he said he's looking forward to discounts after Christmas.
"That's when the sales are going on," he said.
At Macy's in New York, shopper Maureen Whyte had a similar game plan in mind. Whyte, a 33-year-old who works for an insurance company, was picking up last-minute stocking stuffers for her kids. For some toys, however, she was holding off for the post-Christmas sales and her kids understood why.
"I told them, 'Whatever Mommy didn't get you, you'll get after this week,"' she said, noting that her children, ages 5 and 10, are fine waiting as long as they know they'll eventually get their toys.
That's grim news for retailers, which typically get 40 percent of their annual sales in the critical November to December period. Although the week after Christmas is considered part of the season, by that time retailers are backed into a corner since it's their last chance to get rid of items that have been sitting on shelves for months. The steep discounts during that time mean sales are less profitable.
ShopperTrak, which counts foot traffic and its own proprietary sales numbers from 40,000 retail outlets across the country, last Wednesday cut its forecast for holiday spending down to 2.5 percent growth to $257.7 billion, from prior expectations of a 3.3 percent rise.
Online, sales rose just 8.4 percent to $48 billion from Oct. 28 through Saturday, according to a measure by MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse. That is below the online sales growth of between 15 to 17 percent seen in the prior 18-month period, according to the data service, which tracks all spending across all forms of payment, including cash.
Marshal Cohen, chief research analyst at the market research firm NPD Inc., said retailers will have to be more aggressive than usual with discounts in the days after Christmas to get shoppers to spend. That could mean some stores will slash prices by as much as 80 percent to make shoppers believe the sales are a "once in a lifetime opportunity."
"Consumers are going to be rewarded for waiting until after the holidays," he said.