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Last-minute Christmas shoppers find bigger sales, smaller crowds

Dec. 25, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

NEW YORK -- Shoppers who waited until the final days before Christmas were rewarded with big bargains and thinner crowds. But their strategic deal hunting reflects why stores may not ring up the sales they want for the season.

Although fresh data on the holiday shopping season won't be out until after Christmas, analysts expect growth from last year to be relatively modest. Several factors have dampened shoppers' spirits, including fears that the economy could fall off the "fiscal cliff," triggering tax increases and spending cuts early next year.

On Christmas Eve, Taubman Centers, which operates 28 malls across the country, reported a "very strong weekend," with shoppers taking advantage of all the sales. But many last-minute shoppers across the nation in cities such as New York, Atlanta and Indianapolis said they were spending less than they did last year and taking advantage of big discounts ranging from 30 to 70 percent off.

Kris Betzold, 40, of Carmel, Ind., was out at the Fashion Mall at Keystone in Indianapolis on Monday looking for deals on toys, and said she's noticed the sales are "even better now than they were at Thanksgiving." But she said the economy has prompted her and her husband to be more frugal this year.

"We under budgeted ourselves by $400 for Christmas because we just wanted to put that money back in savings," she said.

ShopperTrak, which counts foot traffic and its own proprietary sales numbers from 40,000 retail outlets across the country, on Wednesday cut its forecast for holiday spending down to 2.5 percent growth to $257.7 billion, from prior expectations of a 3.3 percent rise.

Online, sales rose just 8.4 percent to $48 billion from Oct. 28 through Saturday, according to a measure by MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse. That is below the online sales growth of between 15 to 17 percent seen in the prior 18-month period, according to the data service, which tracks all spending across all forms of payment, including cash.

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