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Retailers offer deals as year ends

Heavy crowds showed up at the Albany Mall on Wednesday to make exchanges and take advantage of sales offering up to 75 percent off. Nationwide figures show retail sales this Christmas season to be lackluster, with stores offering deep discounts to make up the difference for the year. (Dec. 26, 2012)

Heavy crowds showed up at the Albany Mall on Wednesday to make exchanges and take advantage of sales offering up to 75 percent off. Nationwide figures show retail sales this Christmas season to be lackluster, with stores offering deep discounts to make up the difference for the year. (Dec. 26, 2012)

ALBANY, Ga. -- If you tried for a parking spot at the Albany Mall on Wednesday, you may have thought you'd traveled back in time to the week before Christmas. The crowd had come not only to exchange well-meaning but ill-fitting, gaudy or duplicate items, but also for the sales.

According to all the early signs, Christmas retail sales were disappointing nationwide. Despite the commercial cannons of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and more, U.S. retailers have some making up to do.

"Yes, I came for the sales," said Alex Jones, an Albany shopper. "I found some things for 75 percent off at Belk's and Penny's. It just makes sense to wait until after Christmas."

According to a report by MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, sales for the two months before Christmas increased by only 0.7 percent compared with the same time last year. That's below the healthy growth of 3 to 4 percent that has been expected, and the worst year-to-year performance since 2008, the onset of the recession.

SpendingPulse is an information service that reports on aggregate retail sales activity in the MasterCard payments network, coupled with survey-based estimates for certain other payment forms, such as cash and checks.

On Wednesday, Charlotte Easterling, of Baconton, seemed determined not to buy a thing for more than 25 percent of its original price, moving methodically through the sale bins at Bath and Body Works.

"I like to save my money and come back after Christmas," Easterling said, never breaking her stride.

Predictions by the National Retail Federation had been much rosier, forecasting a solid sales growth of 4.1 percent over 2011. Unfortunately, some unforeseen events had adverse impacts. In late October, Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, which account for 24 percent of U.S. retail sales. In addition, since the second half of November, many shoppers have worried that the nation will plunge off the "fiscal cliff" next month and possibly fall straight into a second recession.

According to a recent article by The Associated Press, sales increases were about 3 percent in the Southeast. That's a lot better than in the North, but still weaker than the 4 percent expected by many retail analysts.

At the Albany Mall on Wednesday, sales were plentiful and deep. But many of the shoppers seemed less than motivated. Toward the middle of the afternoon, a visual scan of shoppers at the food court found only around one in five with packages.

Dottie and Don Vandelaar, originally from Albany and now residents of Jacksonville, were moving casually through the mall, on the lookout for a sale that suited them. As a specialized "collector," Don Vandelaar missed out on an item he really wanted.

"Unfortunately, we missed the life-sized Santa at Kirkland's," Don Vandelaar said. "Missed it by just five minutes."

Internet sales, typically a bright spot, grew just 8.4 percent from Oct. 28 through the Saturday before Christmas, according to SpendingPulse as reported by AP. The previous 18 months had seen online sales growth of 15-17 percent.

With November and December accounting for up to 40 percent of annual revenue for many retailers, a weak holiday season means steeper discounts, which are good for shoppers, but not so good for retailers. Further, considering consumer spending accounts for some 70 percent of overall economic activity, the eight-week period can be critical, not just for retailers, but for manufacturers, wholesalers and companies at every point along the supply chain, AP reported.