The holiday shopping season turned out to be two seasons: the Black Friday binge and a last-minute surge before Christmas.
Together, they added up to decent sales gains for most retailers. And the doldrums in between showed how shoppers have learned to wait for the discounts they know will come.
"The days that the American consumer gets excited about 25 percent off are over," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group. "Shoppers are keeping their eye on the ball for the big sales events."
In November, spending rose 4.1 percent. And from Dec. 1 to Dec. 24, it rose 4.7 percent compared with the same period last year, according to research firm ShopperTrak. A 4-percent increase is considered a healthy season.
The higher sales are good news for the economy, because they show shoppers were willing to fund a holiday splurge despite high unemployment and other lingering economic woes. Consumer spending, including major items such as health care, accounts for 70 percent of the economy.
Still, plenty of people are pinched for cash in the slow economic recovery, and they were seeking the best deals, which could squeeze stores' profits for the fourth quarter, says Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm.
Stores have trained even shoppers who are primed to spend to look for a discount.
Heading into the season, stores were nervous that shoppers would be tight-fisted. Many officially opened the season with discounts on TVs and toys that started as early as Thanksgiving Day. Consumers came out in droves, resulting in record spending.
Then the frenzy tapered off. A mild winter and the fact that Christmas fell on a Sunday encouraged people to wait until the last minute and accentuated the peaks and valleys of spending.
Stores started to push more discounts to get shoppers to spend in the finale. In fact, retailers' promotional e-mails from Sunday, Dec. 18, to Thursday, Dec. 22, spiked 34 percent, compared with the same period a year ago, according to Responsys, which tracks e-mail activity from more than 100 merchants.
According to Beemer's consumer surveys, 60 percent of shoppers polled were looking for discounts of more than 50 percent to get them to buy. That's up from last year's 51 percent of shoppers polled.
Tracey Spears of Locust Grove, Ga., who was shopping Wednesday at Atlanta's Lenox Square Mall, said she got 75 percent of her holiday shopping done on Black Friday or the day after Thanksgiving. She took advantage of deals, including a Keurig coffee pot from Target and clothes from Hollister on sale.
"I had more money because I got a better bonus this year, but sales are important. You always want to buy stuff cheaper," she said.
Spears and others helped to create pronounced waves in spending.
"The downs and ups were much more accentuated," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It just shows how cautious the consumer is. Consumers are bargain hunters more today than ever before."
In the week before Christmas, last-minute shoppers gave retailers a 4.5-percent increase in revenue over the same week last year at stores open at least a year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Store Sales Index. The index estimates sales at 24 major chain stores, including Macy's Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp.
Revenue at stores open at least a year is an important measure of a retailer's performance because it excludes stores that open or close during the year.
Total retail revenue for the week that ended Saturday reached $44 billion, 14.8 percent higher than a year earlier, ShopperTrak estimates.
For the week that ended Nov. 26, which included the traditional start of holiday shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, stores had the biggest sales surge from the week before since 1993, according to the ICSC-Goldman Sachs index.
The post-Black Friday lull was deeper than usual. The two weeks after Thanksgiving weekend showed the biggest percentage sales decline since 2000.
Then, during the final two weeks before Christmas, sales surged again, by the highest rate since 2005, Niemira said.
The season "was good but uneven," he said.
Stores are expected to benefit when shoppers come back to spend gift cards, because people often spend more than the cards' value. In addition, gift card sales are recorded only when shoppers redeem them.
People have more money on their cards to spend. According to an ICSC-Goldman Sachs survey of shoppers conducted Sunday, 18 percent of holiday spending went toward gift cards, up from 14.6 percent last year.
A total sales figure for the whole season won't be available until after Dec. 31. And a fuller holiday spending picture will come Jan. 5, when stores including Target Corp. and Macy's release December sales figures. Government retail sales data will be released in mid-January.
ICSC said it expects holiday sales for November and December to rise in line with its forecast of 3.5 percent. The National Retail Federation expects total retail sales for November and December combined to increase by 3.8 percent, up from its earlier forecast of 2.8 percent issued back in October. That's still below the 5.2 percent holiday sales increase in 2010 from the previous year.
As proof that consumers are timing their spending to seek the best bargains, Black Friday was the biggest sales day, as expected, generating sales of $11.4 billion, up 6.6 percent from a year ago, according to ShopperTrak.
But the day after Christmas ranked fourth, behind Black Friday, Friday, Dec. 23, and Saturday, Dec. 17, according to final figures from ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin. Christmas Eve was strong too.
ShopperTrak measures foot traffic in 25,000 stores in the U.S. and blends those figures with economic data and proprietary sales figures from merchants. The data exclude sales from auto dealers, gas stations, restaurants and grocery stores.
"Shoppers are willing to spend when they know the biggest discounts are available," Martin said.
Brooks Brothers, the upscale men's and women's clothier that doesn't discount before Christmas, learned that this year. The Monday after Christmas, when the company offered discounts up to 40 percent, was a record spending day at its stores and its website.
"The first three weeks leading up to holiday were soft," Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer, wrote in an email. "But customers really partook in the after-Christmas sales."