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Where to snag the biggest post-holiday deals

A woman shops at a Kohl's department store on Thursday in Alhambra, Calif.
Frederick J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images
A woman shops at a Kohl's department store on Thursday in Alhambra, Calif.

If you're still hoping to snag deals of 50 percent off or more, your best bet may be to steer clear of specialty apparel stores.

After what many considered to be the most heavily promotional pre-Christmas season in years, a number of specialty stores have pumped the brakes on their dramatic discounts, offering post-holiday deals that so far aren't as steep—or compelling—as many experts predicted they would be.

"A lot of specialty stores ... they didn't go gangbusters trying to give products away," said Brian Sozzi, CEO and chief equities strategist at Belus Capital Advisors.

(Read more: What put the break on red-hot online sales growth)

Citi analyst Oliver Chen echoed this sentiment on Friday, when he sent out a note saying that post-holiday online promotions should yield better-than-feared margins for specialty retailers. That's because instead of storewide discounts of 50 percent off—which were prominent before Christmas, as retailers tried to unload heavy inventories in an uncertain consumer environment—they are now further cutting prices on already reduced items.

Gap, for example, is offering up to 30 percent off sale styles, while Urban Outfitters' Free People and Anthropologie are extending discounts of 25 percent off certain sale merchandise.

Even American Eagle, one of the more aggressive stores in terms of pricing this season, has restricted its 50 percent off online deals to clearance items.

Other stores, such as Express, have shifted their promotions to advertise "up to" a certain percentage off, instead of marking down the whole store.

"We believe based on what we've seen that at long last—after eight weeks of inventory overhang—that now inventories are much more on average," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners.

"Most of the imbalance has been corrected ... but at what cost?" he said, referring to the fact that many retailers' margins will take a hit from heavy discounts.

(Read more: US holiday sales better than last year: MasterCard)

That's not to say there aren't good deals to be had. Sozzi said that based on store checks, big discounts can still be found at department stores. He listed price reductions of up to 60, 70 and 80 percent off at stores such as Macy's, Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney and Kohl's.

He also noted particularly heavy inventory levels at Kmart, Old Navy and Wal-Mart—which said earlier in the year that it had stocked up aggressively for the holiday. This should require them to continue offering deep discounts, Sozzi said.

There are also exceptions in the specialty sector, Johnson said. He pointed toward Ann Taylor and Abercrombie & Fitch as retailers that have continued to offer deep discounts, in an effort to draw in consumers.

(Read more: Some shoppers waiting for post-Christmas deals)

Chen sounded a similar note on Abercrombie, writing that the teen retailer is still pressuring the sector by offering a full-store discount of 50 percent off.

"Our take is that teen retailers will feel the most sales/margin pain this holiday season, given less differentiated and more price sensitive category offering," Chen wrote.

Still, it's early in the post-Christmas season, which means that there's still time for sales to get more dramatic at specialty stores, Chen said.

Sozzi agreed that consumers will likely see promotions ramp up again, but noted that storewide discounts aren't as likely, given that a number of the popular items—such as athleticwear—have already been picked over. He anticipates department stores will increase sales from, say, 50 to 60 percent off, to 55 to 65 percent off, in "that last little attempt to entice the consumer," he said.

That may become a necessity. Based on mall checks in the days after Christmas, Sozzi said that traffic isn't what he would expect following the holiday, when many shoppers cash in gift cards and make returns. He said the stores have been relatively empty until about 2 p.m., when things start to look more crowded.

He attributed the slowness to consumers waiting for new items or better prices.

"They don't seem as engaged at the mall as you'd think," he said. "It felt like a normal day."

If this trend continues, Sozzi said, it will be very disturbing for the sector.

On top of ShopperTrak data that showed three weeks of double-digit traffic declines—including a drop of 21.2 percent in the critical final weekend before Christmas—online sales also showed signs of pullback ahead of the holiday.

According to analytics firm comScore, following a slowdown in sales during the final week before Christmas, online spending this season is still expected to grow, but is tracking below estimates.

Still, Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, told CNBC that he remains confident that retail sales will increase 3.9 percent this holiday season.

"In spite of the challenges, the logistics issues, the weather—it's a tough environment, but at the moment we feel really good that that's a strong number, and it's an accurate number," he said.

—By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson. Follow her on Twitter @KrystinaGustafs.

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