With just one day to go before Christmas, it's becoming clear that shoppers have won the annual game of chicken.
While retailers aren't exactly tumbling off a cliff, they've rolled out aggressive last-minute efforts to entice shoppers to their stores or websites. Consumers are responding to these promotions, which include not closing for days on end, discounts of 40 percent or 50 percent and free delivery as late as Monday.
Even with these inducements, though, shoppers are buying far more selectively than stores had hoped, and some say they will wait until after Christmas to score even bigger discounts.
"People just held back," said Jeff Feinberg, managing director with professional services firm Alvarez & Marsal. "They just didn't spend as much, so retailers really had to drop prices in order to spur it."
"I just waited until this weekend to [pay] what I thought was fair," said Andrea Vollf, an interior designer in Schaumburg, Ill. "Stores pretty much overprice everything to cover their overhead. ... I don't see the point of paying $100 for something that's maybe worth 10 or 20 bucks. I just wait for the sales."
Vollf didn't have as much company at the mall as she expected over the weekend. "I was kind of surprised," she said. "I didn't have to fight with people to get my presents."
RetailNext studied 450 stores nationwide and said traffic was down by about 7 percent Friday and Saturday.
(Read more: Retailers frantic to scoop up last-minute sales)
"Early indications show a miss on comparable sales in brick-and-mortar stores compared to last year," the in-store analytics firm said in a statement.
"It has been a promotional season," said Joseph Feldman, senior analyst at Telsey Advisory Group. "We still think comps will be up 2, 2.5 percent in aggregate … with total sales up in the 3 to 4 percent range."
Other analysts also predicted that same-store sales would inch up 2 percent to 3 percent across the retail sector, with aggressive discounters and value brands faring the best.
Shoppers in most income levels responded to a still-sluggish economy, Feinberg said, while the shorter holiday shopping season gave them less time to buy.
"There's still this overhang and people … hold their purse strings a little bit tighter," said Morningstar equity analyst Jaime Katz. Retailers responded by lowering prices, at least on selected items, she added.
In these final days, "it seems like it's escalating," she said. "To me, that would indicate holidays didn't turn out as fruitful as maybe they had originally hoped."
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In the crush of discounts, shoppers apparently still want more.
"When you ask consumers why they didn't get finished, the No. 1 reason was they were waiting for bigger discounts," said Britt Beemer, founder and chairman of America's Research Group. In a survey, nearly one quarter of last-minute shoppers said they were holding out for 60 percent or 70 percent discounts.