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.
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"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.
RetailNext said the shoppers who opened their wallets were spending more. Sales were up 3 percent to 4 percent, but whether that's enough to make up for fewer shoppers remains to be seen.
"I think people are willing to spend more this year; [I] think they just want to see lower prices," Katz said. "It's great for consumers, and it stinks for companies."
Vollf said she planned to continue her seasonal shopping after Christmas.
"I know they're going to be having a lot of 50 percent or 60 percent off. For the things that are not gifts or an emergency, I'm waiting until the 26th and I'm going to shop it," she said. "I might spend the same amount and get more items."
Mark LoCastro, spokesman for DealNews, said some people were giving gift cards as a kind of placeholder that recipients could use for post-Christmas bargain-hunting.
"Get a gift card and put it under the tree, which will force the recipient to shop the after-Christmas sales, which are way better than they are before Christmas," he said.
That's what Michelle Morton of Raleigh, N.C., decided to do.
Waiting until last weekend to shop paid off. She got an extra discount on an iPad mini for one of her kids—and she expects even better deals after the holiday.
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Rather than buy clothes for her teenagers, the 43-year-old professional organizer and life coach had what she called a "light bulb moment" and bought them gift cards from their favorite stores.
"After Christmas, all that stuff is going to be on sal, so they're going to be able to get more than if I buy it now," Morton said. "We need to do our shopping the day after Christmas."
Gift card users tend to spend more than the amount of the card, which is a boost for retailers.
"It helps, especially to get people back in the stores in the next week or two," Feldman said. "The week after Christmas is a big period."
While giving post-holiday gifts likely won't become the norm, it could certainly grow between close friends or relatives.
"Most kids probably understand you can get them placeholder smaller-ticket items," and deliver the goods after Christmas," Katz said. "The worst that happens is you wind up paying the same price as before Christmas."
Paul Zuk of Bayonne, N.J., doesn't consider Christmas Day an actual deadline.
"I actually plan to do a lot more shopping after Christmas," said Zuk, a 26-year-old computer programmer. He plans big-ticket presents for his sister and girlfriend but will wait until after the holiday because he expects better prices, he added.
"They got little things now, and I'm going to get better things after the holidays," he said. "It's still a present, no matter what day you give it to them."
—By Martha C. White, Special to CNBC