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It's a wrap: Holiday retail winners and losers

The gifts are all unwrapped. Returns and exchanges have been made. Now it's time to cut through all the marketing hype to see what really happened during the holiday shopping season.

Which retailers did the best job of making us happy? Who really had the lowest prices?

We spoke to three marketing research firms, 360pi, ForeSee and DealNews, to see what they found when they ran the numbers. Here are the major takeaways.

The Black Friday savings myth

Retailers would like us to believe that we'll find deep discounts on a wide assortment of merchandise on Black Friday. The 360pi Holiday Report calls that widely held notion "more perception than reality."

While you can snag some amazing bargains on a limited supply of door-buster deals, Black Friday prices overall are nothing to get excited about.

"The prices on Black Friday are not as good as they would appear to be, and in many cases, you're paying a premium on Black Friday, which is not what people expect," said Jenn Markey, 360pi's vice president.

(Read more: Hey, it'll be cheaper after Christmas!)

For this report, 360pi studied pricing data on more than 8,000 items during the 18 days from Nov. 15 to Dec. 2 (Cyber Monday) for 23 major retailers, including Amazon, Best Buy, Costco, Sam's Club, Sears, Target, Toys R Us and Wal-Mart.

"Among the majority of monitored retailers, average prices did not change significantly on Black Friday, and in many cases actually increased compared with the day—and even the week—prior," the report concluded.

Amazon was the one exception. The data show it discounted "considerably more and more deeply on Black Friday" than any of the other retailers in this study.

The report notes that some mass market merchants, including Costco, Sam's Club, and Wal-Mart, raised their prices on certain merchandise on Black Friday.

At Target, prices dropped significantly, by as much as 12 percent in some cases.

Wal-Mart challenges the report's conclusions. Sarah McKinney, Wal-Mart's director of communications, told CNBC that "as a low price leader, nobody pays a premium for a product at Walmart—especially on Black Friday." She said the company dropped the prices on some of its most popular Black Friday items.

"Once again, more than 22 million customers chose us because we had the prices and products they were looking for," McKinney wrote.

Getty Images

Amazon doesn't always have the lowest price

No one beats Amazon for the variety of merchandise, but shoppers find better prices on certain products elsewhere.

While Amazon had the lowest average price for the market basket of merchandise 360pi monitored for its report, the retail giant did not offer the best deal in every category.

"You might want to start with Amazon, but don't fall for all the hype that they are the price leader," Markey said. "In many cases, they're not."

Amazon was relatively less price competitive on consumer electronics—tablets, printers and TVs—than other types of merchandise. For example, the site had the lowest prices on action figures 88 percent of the time but on televisions only 48 percent of the time.

Which retailers were the nicest to shoppers?

To find out, ForeSee surveyed more than 67,000 shoppers at the 100 largest retailers (traditional and online) between Black Friday and Dec. 17.

(Read more: Receive an awful gift? Return policies now tighter)

"The data shows that customer loyalty for retailers is on the decline, yet consumers are satisfied with the top retail brands and had the best experience with retailers who mastered the multichannel experience," said Larry Freed, ForeSee's president and CEO. (Multichannel means in-store, online and mobile shopping.)

The ForeSee Experience Index: 2013 U.S. Retail Edition found that:

  • Amazon and L.L.Bean tied for the highest company-level satisfaction, with a score of 90 out of 100.
  • Abercrombie & Fitch and Wal-Mart are near the bottom, with 77. ForeSee considers anything above 80 to be a great score. Freed points out that Abercrombie gets a lot of atypical customers during the holiday period, such as grandparents shopping for the kids, and Wal-Mart has the challenge "of being everything to everybody."
  • About half of the people surveyed (49 percent) don't have a strong preference about where they shop. They're looking for the lowest price or greatest convenience. Only 12 percent said they were loyal to a specific store.

Amazon and Abercrombie & Fitch did not respond to our requests for a comment.

Stores that simply focus on discounts—not service—to attract customers are encouraging them to shop around and look for the best deal, Freed said. He believes that customer service is the only differentiator some retailers can use to be successful.

ForeSee said customer satisfaction during the 2013 holiday gift-giving season will influence shopping decisions in the year ahead. Highly satisfied shoppers said they were:

  • 72 percent more likely to purchase additional products or services from the company
  • 64 percent more likely to purchase from that store the next time they are in the market to buy similar products or services
  • 63 percent more likely to give a positive recommendation
  • 57 percent more likely to retain loyalty to the company

Online and mobile sales continued to grow in 2013, but retail stores still account for the bulk of our holiday purchases.

"We can't forget how important the store experience is," Freed said. "Even though there's a lot of talk about investment in the Web and investment in mobile, multichannel retailers must continue to focus on providing a great experience in the store, which means good product selection, good staff and friendly service. All of those things are still very important."

Some cheers and jeers

Just because it's called a Black Friday deal doesn't mean it's a special price. DealNews.com, a site that tracks advertised prices, said some stores "took the same discounts they regularly offer and merely slapped a Black Friday label on it."

(Read more: Grandparents scrimp, but splurge on grandkids)

The editors gave Wal-Mart a thumbs-up for guaranteeing that certain door-buster deals would be available to anyone in the store during a specific hour.

DealNews also gave a shout-out to Best Buy for making Black Friday deals available a few days before Thanksgiving and matching some of the hottest offers from other retailers on its website, even when those deals were available only in-store at the competition.

"They stole the show," said Lindsay Sakraida, features editor at DealNews. "This was really a big deal for a lot of people who didn't want to go to the store on Black Friday."

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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