Shoppers came out in droves on the last weekend before Christmas, tackling their gift lists and driving traffic up at malls across the country.
Weather caused no major problems a week after an intense snowstorm blanketed the Midwest and caused many malls to close early. Discounts, though not as steep as last year, were rampant, and shoppers responded to them.
At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the nation's largest mall, Public Relations Director Dan Jasper said a big snowstorm the weekend before that closed the mall early had shoppers packing the mall to catch up. Preliminary reports showed 200,000 came to the mall Saturday, making it one of its busiest days ever and the busiest day so far this year.
"People are a little panicked. I'm hearing them say 'We've gotta get this done,' and that doesn't usually show up until the 22nd or the 23rd."
It wasn't the only mall that saw packed stores and parking lots. Greg Maloney, CEO of the retail practice of Jones Lang LaSalle, which operates about 90 malls across the country, said traffic was up 10 percent to 12 percent across the country over the same weekend last year.
Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman for Taubman Centers, which owns or manages 26 shopping centers, said many stores were reporting higher traffic.
Most shoppers still had about half their Christmas shopping left heading into the weekend, according to the National Retail Federation trade group. It expects holiday sales to increase 3.3 percent, approaching 2007 levels.
The Saturday before Christmas is known as "Super Saturday," among retailers. It's one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Research firm ShopperTrak expects it will be the third-busiest this year.
It is a crucial weekend for retailers, because after a strong November, December sales have tapered off. A good last weekend was still needed to seal a successful season. About 34 percent of holiday sales occurred during the last 10 days before Christmas last year, according to ShopperTrak.
But Ramesh Swamy, Retail Practice Leader for Deloitte's Financial Advisory Services says spending is set to pick up this weekend and into next week, when consumers "spend whatever they have left to spend in their wallets."
That's not to say shoppers are spending sloppily. They were carefully comparing prices using all the technology at their disposal to make sure they got good deals. "The consumer has returned, not blindly, but thoughtfully," said Stifel Nicolas analyst Richard Jaffe.
Shopping at a Target in Portland, Ore., on Saturday, Jeff Simpson and Theresa Lingenfelter had a list, had looked online beforehand and double-checked their iPhone to make sure they had the best price before they went to the checkout stands. Lingenfelter said she has her limits how far she'll go to save money.
"I don't want to run all over town for a lava lamp," she said.
The lessons of the recession haven't evaporated, either. "I have a budget and when it's gone, it's gone," said Nicala King of Vancouver, Wash., who was at Barnes & Noble picking up a few final items. She was set on preserving the savings she built up after paying off her credit cards last year.
Retailers are offering promotions that are more planned than last year, Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said.
Ann Taylor Loft, for example, has had a 40 percent off promotion in its stores since Black Friday, although on Saturday it increased that to 50 percent off for sweaters.
Around the mall, Ann Taylor had a storewide 30 percent off sale, Aeropostale offered most items at 50 percent to 70 percent off and Banana Republic had 40 percent off everything until noon, a promotion it didn't run until after Christmas last year.
"It's not slash-and-burn on prices, but promotions are out there, and that is one of the main ingredients driving sales," he said.
Online shopping was going strong as well. On Saturday, online retail spending rose 18 percent, and the average order size rose 4 percent to $169.04 compared to the same day a year ago, according to IBM Coremetrics. As of Friday, shoppers have spent $27.46 billion online since Nov. 1, up 12 percent from last year, according to research firm comScore Inc.
Weather was a bright spot during the weekend. A year ago, a blustery snowstorm kept many shoppers at home along the East Coast. This year, some rain in southern California was the worst of it.
"We had super weather for super Saturday," said Scott Bernhardt, chief operating officer for Planalytics, a weather research firm. "Compared to last year, it's night and day."
Paul and Connie Surface drove about 60 miles Saturday from their Waveland, Ind., farm to downtown Indianapolis to buy a bottle of Coach Inc.'s Poppy perfume for their daughter-in-law and take in the mall scene. They've shopped every weekend since Thanksgiving and are pretty much finished.
"This is not a bad economy if you've got a job," said Paul, 62. "The stores are discounting nice, and the interest rates are low."