Shoppers returned to malls Saturday rummaging through thinly stocked shelves hunting for deals, next year's Christmas gifts and for most, gifts for themselves.
Retailers made a push to woo gift-card toting shoppers by slashing prices and offering doorbuster deals often reserved for the day after Thanksgiving.
Diana Mayfield, a 56-year-old business trainer from Jacksonville, Ill. managed to get two Christmas ornaments for $6, marked down from $28. She was out before dawn Saturday, scouring for next year's Christmas gifts.
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"It's 60 percent off original, so that's pretty good," she said while eyeing a rack of sweaters. "I usually get my electronics the day after Thanksgiving, and we get clothes and paper goods the day after Christmas."
Knowing shoppers would likely spend less, merchants carefully managed inventory this Christmas. That meant on Dec. 26, some store shelves were practically empty.
Donna Brown, a 52-year-old hair dresser from Seaford, Del., visited The Centre at Salisbury on Tuesday but returned Saturday to find few pairs of the $11.99 pajamas she'd been eyeing at J.C. Penney, which opened at 5 a.m.
"Now there's nothing," she said. "Everything's been picked over."
The week after Christmas is big business for retailers, making up 15 percent of sales last year, according research from ShopperTrak.
Thanks to a fluke in the calendar, merchants have a whole weekend to entice shoppers immediately after Christmas. That meant many stores were offering expanded hours Saturday and extra deals hoping crowds of gift-card-toting shoppers would snap up goods.
Retailers received a much-needed last-minute sales surge in the final days before Dec. 25, fueled by shoppers who delayed buying, waited for bigger discounts that never came or were slowed by last weekend's big East Coast snowstorm.
But now they're counting on the days after Christmas to perk up overall holiday sales in a season that looks like it's modestly better than last year's disaster.
The full holiday picture won't be known until merchants report December sales Jan. 7. But most expect merchants' fourth-quarter profits should be intact because they didn't press the panic button.
ShopperTrak is sticking to its prediction for a 1.6 percent gain, compared with a 5.9 percent drop a year ago.
The National Retail Federation expects that total retail sales will slip 1 percent, though some experts say that might be a bit too cautious. A year ago, they fell 3.4 percent by the trade group's calculations.
AP Retail Writer Anne D'Innocenzio contributed to this report from New York. Heher reported from Salisbury, Md.
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