Parking lots at shopping centers in the Philadelphia area and across the country were packed yesterday as customers returned on the day after Christmas - but most weren't looking to splurge.

Instead, many were on the hunt for big bargains on specific items or hoping to return unwanted gifts.

Many malls helped out with extended hours - the Cherry Hill Mall opened three hours early at 7 a.m., for example, and the King of Prussia mall turned on the lights at 8, two hours early.

But in a holiday shopping season in which many Americans were unwilling to spend, even a packed parking lot doesn't always translate into holiday cheer for stores.

And although some malls appeared to be busy with bargain hunters and gift-returners yesterday, analysts said traffic overall appeared to be lighter than in years past.

Brenda Peterson was looking for "flat-out bargains" after driving 35 miles to arrive at a J.C. Penney in Raleigh, N.C., at 5 a.m., a half-hour before the store opened.

But she left empty-handed. A toy that she had spotted before Christmas - a stuffed dog that rolls over and shakes its paw - was gone. And even sales of up to 60 percent off clothing and other items weren't too enticing. After all, she had seen those sales before Christmas this year, too.

That was a common refrain among customers and retailers yesterday.

"Shoppers were used to big discounts - 33 to 50 percent," said Bob Wahlquist, senior regional manager for Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, the Philadelphia firm that owns the Cherry Hill Mall. "Some of that was rolled out prior to Christmas Day. I'm not sure anybody could be shocked by anything today."

Wahlquist said the big pre-Christmas discounts seemed to result in store shelves that contained a little less merchandise than on Dec. 26 in past years.

At the King of Prussia mall, marketing manager Mark Bachus expressed surprise that yesterday's bargains weren't steeper. "I thought discounts and promotions would be a lot deeper than what they've been," he said.

Despite the recession and forecasts of a disappointing shopping season nationwide, Bachus said he thought the King of Prussia mall might not lose ground compared with the 2007 holidays. The mall counts sales through Dec. 31 as part of the holiday season, and he said he expected this weekend and next week to be busy.

"I'm hoping overall spending will be the same amount" as last year, he said. "We'd be happy because we had very low expectations."

There was "very light traffic" yesterday at the Mall at Wellington Green in Wellington, Fla., said Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman for Taubman Centers Inc., which owns or manages 24 malls in 11 states.

Moreover, the focus on bargains could spell deep trouble for the nation's stores, which faced the worst holiday shopping season in decades.

According to preliminary data from SpendingPulse, which tracks purchases paid for by credit card, checks or cash, retail sales fell between 5.5 percent and 8 percent during the holiday season compared with last year. Excluding auto and gas sales, they fell 2 percent to 4 percent, according to SpendingPulse.

More people did appear to shop online, particularly in the last two weeks of the season, when storms hit. Online sales dipped just 2.3 percent, SpendingPulse said.

A fuller indicator of how retailers fared will arrive Jan. 8, when major stores report same-store sales, or sales at locations open at least a year, for December.

Many stores are likely to report a loss for the fourth quarter, NPD senior retail analyst Marshal Cohen said yesterday.

"It's been difficult, much more difficult than anyone expected," Gilbert Harrison, chairman and chief executive officer of retail advisory firm Financo Inc., said of this season. Consumers "will spend on necessities, they'll spend on what they need, but they're being very particular in what they'll buy."

But results weren't uniform, as Amazon.com yesterday reported a strong December. The online retailer called this holiday season its "best ever," saying it saw a 17 percent increase in orders on its busiest day.