Shoppers headed to America's malls Saturday, many with gift cards in hand, hoping to snag after-Christmas discounts. They were greeted with big markdowns — in some cases topping 75 percent off — but often found limited selection.
"Everything's been picked over," said Donna Brown, a 52-year-old hairdresser from Seaford, Del., as she sorted through what was left of the fleece pajamas marked down 60 percent to $11.99 at a J.C. Penney store in Salisbury, Md.
Crowds were mixed during the kickoff of the week after Christmas, which last year accounted for nearly 15 percent of holiday retail sales.
This year, it could be more important because snowstorms that socked much of the country cut sales by 2.1 percent for the weekend before Christmas compared with the same weekend a year earlier, according to research firm ShopperTrak.
Retailers are counting on the days after Christmas to perk up overall holiday sales in a season that looks like it's been only modestly better than last year's disaster.
This year the calendar provides a full weekend just after Christmas for merchants to try to entice shoppers to ring up more sales before many close out the year.
"Nothing was amazingly stellar," NPD Group analyst Marshal Cohen said of the holiday season so far. "This is not going to go down as a Christmas for most people to really remember."
This Saturday, stores made a push to woo gift-card-toting shoppers Saturday by opening early, slashing prices and advertising big sales. "Wasn't under the tree? Get it now at the Apple Store," read one ad from Apple .
Knowing holiday shoppers would likely spend less this year because of high unemployment, a move toward thrift and economic uncertainty, merchants carefully managed inventory for the season, buying less than a year ago when the economic meltdown surprised everyone and forced fire sales to get rid of excess goods.
That meant by Saturday, some store shelves were practically empty.
"There isn't a tremendous amount to buy," Lisa Walters, a consultant with Retail Eye Partners, said as she studied shoppers at a mall in upstate New York.
Sheena Bird bought a flannel coat for $40 — 40 percent off — at Atlanta's Lenox Square Mall. But the waitress said she had no plans for a daylong shopping spree.
"There were a lot of good deals," she said. "But I was selective today, because I just got a bunch of gifts."
Many shoppers hunted for clearance Christmas items like ornaments, decorations and glassware.
Kristie Dobbins, 31, stopped at the Walmart store in Roeland Park, Kan. to buy holiday linens for next year. Along the way, she got a a dog bed for her Alaskan malamute.
"Everything we bought was half off," she said. "So it was worth the wait, and we will be ready for next year."
But others simply couldn't find what they were looking for or left empty-handed, hoping for better deals.
"I was trying to find a dress coat for my husband, but didn't find anything," said Bernaden Demesyeux after more than an hour of shopping at Livingston Mall in Livingston, N.J. "Everything is the same prices as before."
Weather also could complicate things, as a strong snow storm swept across parts of the nation's midsection and rain dampened the mid-Atlantic through New England, threatening to cause flooding. That kept some stores empty earlier in the day.
Walmart was offering half-off toys, and Toys R Us touted buy one, get one half-off offers. At Sears , customers could find coats for 70 percent off. And Gap's Old Navy brand was selling men's and women's jeans for $15, and an e-mail encouraged shoppers to "redeem your gift cards today."
Gift card sales are not recorded as merchants' revenues until shoppers redeem them.
But gift card use appeared lighter at some locations Saturday, a potentially troubling sign because gift card redeemers often spend more than the value of the card and often buy goods that aren't on sale.
And returns seemed mixed, too, said Dan Jasper, a spokesman for the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. who said a combination of less selection in stores and tighter budgets led to the change.
"People didn't buy a lot of extraneous stuff," he said.
Still, the full assessment of this year's shopping season won't be known until merchants report December sales Jan. 7. Most expect fourth-quarter profits to be better than last year, because stores weren't forced to dramatically slash prices to liquidate unwanted merchandise.
Most who predict holiday sales have stuck with projections for sales slightly above or slightly below last year's.