The holiday shopping season turned out to be two seasons: the Black Friday binge and a last-minute surge.
Together, they added up to decent sales gains for retailers. And the doldrums in between showed that 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.
Even shoppers who are primed to spend have been trained to look for a discount.
Heading into the season, stores were nervous that shoppers would be tight-fisted. Many stores 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 fact, retailers' promotional emails from Dec. 18 to last Thursday spiked 34 percent, compared with the same period a year ago, according to Responsys, which tracks email activity from more than 100 merchants.
A total sales figure for the season won't be available until January. 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.
The International Council of Shopping Centers 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 based on preliminary data, Christmas Eve and Dec. 26 were the second- and third-heaviest spending days of the season, according to ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin.