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."
Stores made a push to woo gift-card-toting shoppers Saturday by opening early, slashing prices and advertising big sales.
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."