Bargain-hunting shoppers are expected to flood stores on Super Saturday weekend -- the last before Christmas -- and deliver retailers the highest holiday weekend sales so far this season.
But many industry experts doubt whether the final weekend hurrah will generate enough business to push overall holiday sales above the dismal tally from last year, when the global economy was in free fall, shoppers were panicked about their savings and jobs and retailers were forced to dump excess merchandise at rock-bottom prices.
Budget-oriented shoppers appear to be playing a game of chicken with retailers this year, waiting for steeper discounts from stores than the 30 percent to 50 percent off already on offer. But analysts expect retailers to hold their ground in the week before Christmas.
By the middle of this month, 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.
While discounts abound and some have gotten steeper over time, Needham & Co analyst Christine Chen doesn't think that 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 said 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.
Madison Riley, managing director of North America for retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates, agreed: Retailers have been well prepared for this season. I don't think they're going to blink.
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 National Retail Federation started tracking the data.
I don't think sales are going to be that great, but that's what everyone was expecting, Riley said.
Procrastination has been the rule so far this year and ShopperTrak now expects the full Super Saturday weekend to be this season's blockbuster. That distinction has often gone to the Black Friday weekend that comes on the heels of U.S. Thanksgiving Day and marks the official start of the holiday shopping season.
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.
To entice online shoppers on a budget, many retailers will offer special sales and promotions as shipping deadlines near, Shop.org Executive Director Scott Silverman said. Shop.org is the online division of the NRF.
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 like door busters and our lowest prices of the season. Among other things, it is offering a free $15 gift card with the purchase of any 8-gigabyte iPod nano from Apple Inc.
Analysts expect the season's winner's circle to include retailers like J Crew, Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, a division of Urban Outfitters, Walmart and Sears. Formerly hot Abercrombie & Fitch is expected to be a laggard this year.
After monitoring everything from mall traffic to holiday parties, trendspotter Marian Salzman, is questioning whether changing attitudes about consumption and the environment help explain the delay in this year's holiday shopping.
Among other things, shoppers are cutting extended family and fly-by-night friends from gift lists, formerly kitsch homemade goods are becoming chic, and shopping at thrift stores is losing its stigma.
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 and Carol Bishopric)