Holiday shoppers were out in full force this weekend but sticking closely to their lists. Many are holding out for bigger discounts, and those 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, consumers are still waiting to see if better deals are coming before Christmas.
"I'm playing chicken with retailers, still, until next weekend," said Matt Schuld, a shopper at a Target in Portland, Ore.
He said he had a good year at work as a business analyst and would be spending a bit more than usual. Even so, 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.
"The two busiest stores in the mall are anyone selling UGG boots and electronic products," Cohen said.
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.
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's spending a bit more on gifts this year to help her sister's family, which has been having money troubles, but added 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, and credit cards to get cash back and see what I can get for my money."
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."