Bargain-hunting shoppers are expected to flood stores on Super Saturday weekend -- the last before Christmas -- and deliver retailers the highest weekend sales so far this holiday season.
But many industry experts doubt whether the final hurrah will generate enough business to push overall holiday sales above the dismal tally from 2008, when the global economy was in free fall, shoppers were panicked about their savings and jobs and retailers dumped merchandise at rock-bottom prices.
Clouding sales prospects, a snow storm is threatening parts of the East coast. The storm track runs from Virginia north to Boston according to weather tracking company Planalytics.
That could derail sales on Saturday at retailers with a large presence in the area, including Bon-Ton Stores Inc, Kohl's Corp, American Eagle Outfitters Inc and Macy's Inc.
It's a huge net negative for business on one of the biggest shopping days of the year, said Evan Gold, senior vice president of client services for Planalytics.
The storms may drive consumers online to sites such as Amazon.com, but Gold said the worry is that shoppers are bumping up against deadlines to ensure gifts arrive by Christmas and could face unexpected shipping fees.
Retailers in the path of the snow storm will try to make up for lost business on Sunday, although Gold said some sales will inevitably be lost if shoppers cannot make it in to stores.
ANNUAL GAME OF CHICKEN UNDERWAY
Budget-oriented shoppers are playing their typical game of chicken with retailers, waiting for steeper discounts from stores than the 30 percent to 50 percent off already on offer.
U.S. shoppers still had more than half of their holiday gift buying to do, the highest percentage since 2004, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation conducted December 1 through December 9.
While discounts abound and some have gotten steeper over time, Needham & Co analyst Christine Chen does not think shoppers have much to gain by pushing things closer to the Christmas deadline for buying gifts.
The promotional cadence has not accelerated dramatically from Black Friday, said Chen, who added that existing discounts could move 10 percent or so in either direction.
I don't think they're going to get significantly deeper over the weekend because there's just not very much inventory ... You're not going to see things go to the 70 to 80 (percent off) like they were pretty much all quarter last year.
Procrastination has been the rule so far this year and ShopperTrak expects the full Super Saturday weekend to be this season's blockbuster. That distinction has often gone to Black Friday weekend that comes on the heels of U.S. Thanksgiving Day and marks the official start of the holiday shopping season.
ShopperTrak said it was sticking by its estimate for a strong weekend despite the weather forecast.
GOOD OR NOT GREAT
Holiday sales forecasts have narrowed over the course of the shopping season to a range of down 1 percent to up 1 percent from 2008, when holiday sales fell for the first time since the NRF started tracking the data.
I don't think sales are going to be that great, but that's what everyone was expecting, said Madison Riley, managing director of North America for retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates.
Christmas falls on a Friday this year, which could shift last-minute gift buying into next week.
But Gold said retailers are not in the clear on the weather front once the weekend passes, with snow, rain and heavy snow forecast for various parts of the United States next week.
Retailers are nudging online shoppers with reminders that they should get their orders in on or before Saturday, so that packages will arrive in time for Christmas.
Promotions for toys have been particularly aggressive as retail giants like Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Target Corp and Amazon.com Inc battle over price.
To that end, Toys R Us Inc has begun promoting a two-day sale starting Friday with an ad using language such as door busters and our lowest prices of the season.
Trend-spotter Marian Salzman is questioning whether changing attitudes about consumption and the environment help explain the delay in this year's holiday shopping.
I feel like we've reached this point where less is going to be more this year ... We just may be at this horrible tipping point where things just don't feel good to us anymore, said Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR.
(Editing by Michele Gershberg, Carol Bishopric and Andre Grenon)