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Few deep discounts as shopping hits stride

NEW YORK - If you were hoping to find massive clearance sales as you finish your holiday shopping, prepare to be disappointed.

NEW YORK - If you were hoping to find massive clearance sales as you finish your holiday shopping, prepare to be disappointed.

Major stores that had worried it would take across-the-board discounts to lure shoppers are backing away from the panic button. They planned better this year in stocking merchandise, and Americans are spending a little more than expected.

Sales last week were up 18 percent from the week before, and a little more than 1 percent higher than a year before, according to figures released yesterday by research firm ShopperTrak.

And because stores did not load up on merchandise as they did last year before the financial meltdown, they can stick to their original plans for discounts.

"The difference between this year and last year was planning," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman at the National Retail Federation, the world's largest retail trade group, which has not changed its forecast for a 1 percent decline in holiday sales. "Retailers had time to plan, whereas last year they didn't."

There are plenty of deals to be had, and discounts will probably be deeper this weekend, the last before Christmas, as happens most years. But people waiting for mounds of merchandise with 80 percent discounts - well, they might be left waiting.

That should help fourth-quarter profit as stores find they do not have to slash prices to clear out their stock.

"Stores did a better job in matching supply with demand," said BMO Capital Markets retail analyst John Morris. He added, "Those consumers going out to the malls are very stingy."

For stores, the success of the holiday shopping season depends on the week before Dec. 25, which accounts for about a quarter of holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak, which tracks sales at more than 50,000 outlets.

In fact, the Saturday before Christmas usually rivals the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional start of holiday shopping, in sales volume.

And stores have reason for some optimism: Shoppers do not seem as far along in their gift-buying as they were last year at this point, according to the National Retail Federation and the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Shoppers have stuck to their lists and bought discounted practical items such as socks, pajamas, and microwave ovens, though they have opened their wallets for discounted electronics. Online shopping has been another bright spot.

Retailers are pinning hopes on shoppers like Marney Bilodeau, who said she was cramming all her holiday buying in this week and next.

"I haven't felt like it up until now," said Bilodeau, who was at Arizona's Scottsdale Fashion Square last weekend. "I try to budget the rest of the year, so that I can fit in a little bit more around Christmastime."