NEW YORK -- Retailers remained anxious yesterday after the last full weekend of shopping before Christmas appeared robust but not spectacular, despite generous bargains for many goods.
The retail industry -- which had an uneven start to the holiday season and has seen disappointing crowds at malls since -- was hoping for a big sales bonanza. But with lean inventories and the final critical days still to come, stores are not panicking.
Again, merchants are relying on procrastinators during the final days before Christmas and post-holiday sales -- expected to be boosted by the redemption of gift cards.
''This was a healthy weekend, but it wasn't something to knock your socks off," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y. ''But stores aren't panicking because the season has more time to go."
The winners and losers this weekend were the same ones throughout the season. Discounters and electronics stores drew in the most crowds, while mall-based apparel stores were a mixed bag, Cohen said. Luxury stores did well, though he believes their sales gains aren't as robust as a year ago.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, said Saturday that December sales growth is still on track to be up anywhere from 2 percent to 4 percent. But it noted that food sales continue to outpace general merchandise sales. That may not bode well for profits, as food carries thin profit margins.
Analysts expect this past Saturday to be the busiest for store owners this season, but given this year's quirky calendar, it could lose some luster. This year, Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday, and Hanukkah is also later than usual, starting Dec. 25. Those factors will accentuate last-minute shopping, said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Booming gift card sales and robust online sales are also helping to skew sales figures. Gift cards, again a big winner this holiday season, are only recorded as sales when recipients redeem them.
According to comScore Networks Inc., non-travel online spending during the first 46 days of the holiday season, ended Dec. 16, totaled $15.86 billion, up 23 percent from the corresponding year-ago period. The gain is still shy of the 24 percent growth forecast for the season.
Nevertheless, analysts have been worried about disappointing business at the mall, a sign that shoppers are frugal amid high energy costs, even though they have fallen in recent weeks.
Amid a challenging economy, stores offered more generous discounts from the start of the season than a year ago, but most bargains have been planned, said Tamara Pattison, vice president of products for Cairo.com, an online shopping resource that helps consumers track deals locally.
J.C. Penney Co., which opened its doors for 17 hours straight on Saturday, offered up to 60 percent off on merchandise. At Macy's Herald Square, sweaters were marked half off.
''Because most things are 50 percent or 75 percent off, you can really get a deal. I think this is the best time yet," Denise Jones of Baltimore said Saturday.