Nervous Retailers Hope for Post-Christmas Rush

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The biggest holiday of the season is over, but retailers are hoping that you aren't done with your holiday shopping quite yet.

"The next few days are critical for retailers. They've got some catching up to do," said Marshal Cohen, retail industry analyst with NPD Group.

By early Wednesday, big chains including Macy's were already pushing their post-Christmas bargains, while major discounters including Wal-Mart were encouraging shoppers to redeem their gift cards right away. But the fallout from a big Christmas storm could hurt their efforts if shoppers decide they prefer a cozy rest of the week at home instead.

Retailers had started off the all-important holiday shopping season in a much cheerier mood, as Black Friday shoppers appeared to gobble down turkey and rush to the stores – and their computers – in search of holiday gifts and bargains.

But then, a combination of factors including Hurricane Sandy and the political upheaval over the fiscal cliff appeared to dim shoppers' moods. Experts also said the stronger start to the season may have been a sign that people finished up early and had fewer last-minute shopping trips to make.

"The early start certainly looked like it meant that the consumer was in full spirits," Cohen said. "But in reality just because they had a front-loaded holiday didn't mean there was going to be that much more spending to come."

It's too early to paint a complete picture of how retailers fared so far in the most crucial season of the year. But early indications have some fretting that the year will end up being weaker than many had initially hoped.

Holiday-related sales rose 0.7 percent from Oct. 28 through Dec. 24, as compared to last year, according to data from Mastercard Advisors SpendingPulse. That survey showed a 2 percent increase in 2011.

The SpendingPulse data is based on estimates of payments made through the MasterCard network as well as by cash and check.

Research firm ShopperTrak, which compiles sales estimates based on foot traffic, said last week that it expects holiday sales to increase by 2.5 percent. That's down from its previous estimate that sales would increase by 3.3 percent.

But other researchers have not changed their initial forecasts for the season.

On Wednesday, the International Council of Shopping Centers, which produces an index of chain store sales along with Goldman Sachs, said it was holding to its estimate that holiday sales at chain stores would rise 3 percent this year.

The ICSC's chief economist, Michael Niemira, said in a note that sales in the last week of December could benefit from a calendar shift that put Christmas Eve on Monday this year.

A National Retail Federation spokeswoman said in an e-mail Wednesday that it also was sticking with its forecast that holiday sales would grow 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion.

Experts caution that it's hard to say just yet what the final data will show, especially once post-holiday bargains are factored in.

"There's no question that we saw a lot of (the) momentum slow down. How much did it slow down? We don't really know yet," Cohen said.

Holiday sales are considered crucial to retailers, and some can expect to make as much as half their profits, and 30 percent of their sales, during the two-month period.

The fiscal cliff, Hurricane Sandy and other external factors are partly to blame for souring shoppers' moods toward the end of the season. But experts say shoppers have in recent years also become more savvy about sussing out bargains.

They've also become more bargain-conscious. C. Britt Beemer, retail analyst with America's Research Group, said in a research note that major discounters appeared to fare best in keeping their customers.

"Consumers were very frugal this year, as we said all along," Beemer said in the note.

(Read More: Consumers Know of 'Fiscal Cliff,' but Do They Care? )

The increasing shift to online shopping also may not be helping retailers pick up any extra sales. That's because when a person shops online, they tend to seek out the best bargain and then buy that item. An in-store shopper may be more tempted to walk the other aisles, pick up a few things for themselves or do some other impulse shopping they hadn't planned on.

"The consumer didn't spend a lot of time this year buying those extra gifts. They didn't spend a lot of time spending on themselves instead of others," Cohen said.

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