At the malls, overall promotions were up 2 to 3 percent from last year heading into the pre-Christmas weekend, after being down 5 percent earlier in the season, according to BMO Capital Markets sales rack index, which tracks the depth and breadth of discounts.
Attempting to drum up enthusiasm, retailers have expanded hours and stepped up discounts.
At The Garden State Plaza, teen retailer Aeropostale discounted all clothing and accessories by 60 percent. Charles David, Cachet and AnnTaylor had cut prices by 50 percent of all merchandise. At AnnTaylor, racks of discounted clothes had been marked down by an additional 25 percent. One dress, originally priced at $118, was marked down to $49 but with the additional 25 percent, it cost $21.30.
But the deals at the mall failed to impress Wendy McCloskey, 35, of Lebanon, Ind., who started her holiday shopping Sunday at the Castleton Square Mall in Indianapolis. A snow storm that blustered through the Midwest this week delayed her shopping plans, and a busy schedule with her children also got in the way.
"I was so surprised. I figured they'd have better deals," she said.
And at The Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., Linda Fitzgerald said she didn't feel like shopping this season, facing a sister's cancer diagnosis atop worries about the economy and the Connecticut shooting.
"It's so hard to put yourself in the mood," said Linda Fitzgerald, a 51-year-old nurse from Yonkers who went out weekend shopping with her 17-month-old granddaughter in tow.
Anne D'Innocenzio reported from New York. Tom Murphy in Indianapolis contributed to this report.