It's too early to paint a complete picture of how retailers fared so far in the most crucial season of the year. But early indications have some fretting that the year will end up being weaker than many had initially hoped.
Holiday-related sales rose 0.7 percent from Oct. 28 through Dec. 24, as compared to last year, according to data from Mastercard Advisors SpendingPulse. That survey showed a 2 percent increase in 2011.
The SpendingPulse data is based on estimates of payments made through the MasterCard network as well as by cash and check.
Research firm ShopperTrak, which compiles sales estimates based on foot traffic, said last week that it expects holiday sales to increase by 2.5 percent. That's down from its previous estimate that sales would increase by 3.3 percent.
But other researchers have not changed their initial forecasts for the season.
On Wednesday, the International Council of Shopping Centers, which produces an index of chain store sales along with Goldman Sachs, said it was holding to its estimate that holiday sales at chain stores would rise 3 percent this year.
The ICSC's chief economist, Michael Niemira, said in a note that sales in the last week of December could benefit from a calendar shift that put Christmas Eve on Monday this year.
A National Retail Federation spokeswoman said in an e-mail Wednesday that it also was sticking with its forecast that holiday sales would grow 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion.
Experts caution that it's hard to say just yet what the final data will show, especially once post-holiday bargains are factored in.
"There's no question that we saw a lot of (the) momentum slow down. How much did it slow down? We don't really know yet," Cohen said.
Holiday sales are considered crucial to retailers, and some can expect to make as much as half their profits, and 30 percent of their sales, during the two-month period.