ATLANTA -- Last-minute shoppers crowded into U.S. malls andstores during the last weekend before Christmas, but many didn't seem tobe in the spending spirit.
This holiday season, Americans have a lot on their minds on top of the now familiar job worries.
Consumersin the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, which account for 24% of retailsales nationwide, were tripped up by Superstorm Sandy. The storm hit inlate October and disrupted businesses and households for several weeks.
Shoppersare also increasingly worried about the fast approaching "fiscal cliff"deadline - the possibility that a stalemate between Congress and theWhite House over the U.S. budget could trigger a series of tax increasesand spending cuts starting Jan. 1. Confidence among U.S. consumersdropped to its lowest point in December since July because of growingconcerns about the economy, according to a monthly index releasedFriday.
And the recent Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre also dampened shoppers' spirits, analysts said.
Thisconfluence of factors has led to a muted approach to holiday shopping -bad news for retailers, which can make up to 40% of annual sales duringNovember and December and were counting on the last weekend beforeChristmas to make up for lost dollars earlier in the season. TheSaturday before Christmas was expected to be the second biggest salesday behind the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday in late November.
"It'sso hard to put yourself in the mood," said Linda Fitzgerald, a51-year-old nurse from Yonkers, New York, who was with her 17-month-oldgranddaughter at The Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey, onSaturday. She was out Christmas shopping for the first time this year.
Sheplanned to spend $1,500 on gifts such as clothes for her boyfriend,down dramatically from $4,000 last year. She had expected to startshopping last weekend, but simply didn't feel like it, facing a sister'scancer diagnosis and worry about the economy and the Connecticutshooting.
Similarly,Deborah O'Conner, 51, from Westwood, New Jersey, also at Garden StatePlaza on Saturday, had intentions of finishing her holiday shoppingearly, but Superstorm Sandy put a wrench in her plans. She spent alllast month helping out her parents and her cousin, whose Long Island,New York, homes suffered damage
"I had planned to be out early butit didn't happen," said O'Conner, the mother of three children, ages22, 19 and 15. "If it weren't for the storm, I would have been done."
MarshalCohen, chief research analyst at NPD Inc., a market research firm with anetwork of analysts at shopping centers around the U.S., estimates thatcustomer traffic over the weekend was in line with the same time a yearago, but shoppers seem to be spending less.
"There was thisabsence of joy for the holiday," he said. "There was no Christmasspirit. There have been just too many distractions."
After astrong Black Friday weekend, the four-day weekend that starts onThanksgiving, when sales rose 2.7%, the lull that usually follows hasbeen even more pronounced. Sales fell 4.3% for the week ended Dec. 15,according to the latest figures from ShopperTrak, which counts foottraffic and its own proprietary sales numbers from 40,000 retail outletsacross the country. On Wednesday, ShopperTrak cut its forecast forholiday spending down to 2.5% growth to $257.7 billion, from priorexpectations of a 3.3% rise.
Attempting to drum up enthusiasm,retailers have expanded hours and stepped up discounts. Toys R Us storesare staying open for 88 consecutive hours beginning Friday at 6 a.m.through Christmas Eve at 10 p.m. Macy's opened most stores from Fridayat 7 a.m. until Sunday at midnight. And other retailers like Target andNordstrom expanded hours at some locations.
At the malls, overallpromotions were up 2 to 3% from last year heading into the weekend,after being down 5% earlier in the season, according to BMO CapitalMarkets sales rack index, which tracks the depth and breadth ofdiscounts.
At The Garden State Plaza, teen retailer Aeropostalediscounted all clothing and accessories by 60%. Charles David, Cachetand AnnTaylor had cut prices by 50% of all merchandise. At AnnTaylor,racks of discounted clothes had been marked down by an additional 25%.One dress, originally priced at $118, was marked down to $49 but withthe additional 25%, it cost $21.30.
But the deals at the mallfailed to impress Wendy McCloskey, 35, of Lebanon, Indiana, who startedher holiday shopping Sunday at the Castleton Square Mall inIndianapolis. The snow storm that blew through the Midwest this weekdelayed her shopping plans, and a busy schedule with her children alsogot in the way. She has two teenagers and a 12-year-old, and they areall involved in sports.
She wanted to buy shoes at the Finish Lineonline, but balked at paying $40 for shipping. In the store, she boughtfive pairs of sneakers for $390. But she'd expected to see biggerdiscounts at the mall.
"I was so surprised, I figured they'd have better deals," she said.