Holiday Central

The clock is winding down for retailers as critical shopping weekend looms

A shopper carries her purchases along the Magnificent Mile shopping district in Chicago, Illinois.
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Time is running out for retailers to recoup from a disappointing November — making this "Super Saturday" weekend all the more critical.

Though the bulk of the holiday shopping season is already in the rearview mirror, six of the 10 busiest days still lie ahead, according to ShopperTrak. The last-minute push kicks off this weekend, on what will be the final full Saturday for holiday shopping.

A rush of cold air across the Northeast and Midwest should give retailers a boost over the crucial period, spurring demand for winter gear that never materialized last season. Yet even as shelves are stocked with less merchandise, deep discounts and price deflation will make it challenging for retailers to record sales gains.

Though there is one additional Saturday before Christmas this year, many retailers will close their doors early on Dec. 24. So the bulk of last-minute weekend spending is expected this weekend, according to ShopperTrak.

"They've really got to have a good day because the traffic levels have been pretty anemic," Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, told CNBC. "It's going to be difficult to make up [for a soft November] ... but a strong weekend would go a long way toward salvaging the holiday season."

Government data released Wednesday painted a disappointing picture for November, which traditionally kicks off the holiday season. Not only did the headline number come in shy of expectations, but critical segments including general merchandise and electronics stores reported negative results from the prior year.

Retailers and analysts have said that trends picked up later in November, after the election results were tallied. They've also pointed to a stronger October, saying that early promotions pulled some consumer spending forward. Combined with the fact that many shoppers wait until the last minute, these factors indicate that consumer spending remains strong, and the season could end on a positive note.

Retail sales up 0.1% in November

Still, they don't explain all of retail's troubles. Despite solid economic fundamentals that include a low unemployment rate and higher home prices, consumers are choosing to spend their money on dining out, travel and online. Retailers have pumped up the discounts in response, making it harder to grow sales.

These promotional headwinds depressed spending over Thanksgiving weekend, even as more shoppers participated in the sales events, according to the National Retail Federation. The trade group's consumer survey found that more than one-third of Americans who shopped over the Black Friday stretch said 100 percent of their purchases were on sale.

"It's a vicious cycle and it feels like a race to the bottom, but what else are they left to do?" Perkins said.

Although the major retail chains are more promotional than last year, there is one big difference. Because these companies did a better job aligning their inventory levels with demand, promotions have been more planned than last season. That should benefit margins.

New research by Moody's Investors Service indicates this phenomenon occurred in the third quarter. Despite heavy promotions and deflation, Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy were still able to grow their margins during the three-month period. That should provide them some "cushion" in the fourth quarter, analyst Charlie O'Shea said.

"We believe Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy are well-positioned as we head into the final leg of the holiday season," he said. "We stress that holiday is a marathon, not a sprint, so there are a lot of miles left to run."

This weekend's well-timed winter chill should help, Perkins said. However, wet weather could also send shoppers to the web, as most orders placed via standard shipping this weekend should still arrive by Christmas.

Overall, Retail Metrics expects fourth-quarter same-store sales to rise just 1 percent. Earnings are expected to be "even worse," and decline 1.6 percent on the year. The NRF predicts retail sales will increase 3.6 percent in November and December.