ATLANTA - Retailers are reporting thin inventories after coming out of Christmas with slightly better-than-expected sales.

Some retailers kept inventory so low during the holiday shopping season that they have had to bring in new merchandise to restock shelves, a rare move this soon after Christmas.

While that's good news for their bottom lines, it means slim pickings for shoppers hoping for after-Christmas clearance sales. Customers looking for big sales should act quickly because there are relatively few leftovers to clear out.

NPD analyst Marshal Cohen said he noticed J. Crew and Coach were two that had restocked shelves with new items last week.

Because their ordering was in line with weak demand, retailers were able to sell more items at higher prices, which is critical to profits. Last year, profits were hammered by fire-sale discounts to get rid of the excess.

"The latest holiday shopping season wasn't a rip-roaring success, but at least it met or slightly exceeded expectations," said John Lonski, chief economist of Moody's Capital Markets Research Group. "Consumer spending is indeed in a recovery mode, which brightens prospects for 2010."

Spending rose 3.6 percent from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, according to MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which estimates all forms of payment. Adjusted for an extra shopping day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the number was closer to a 1 percent rise. That was still better than the flat sales analysts had predicted.

After-Christmas traffic over the weekend and yesterday also appeared to be relatively robust, though it wasn't clear how much people were actually spending - or whether they were just looking.

Roth Capital Partners analyst Elizabeth Pierce visited six malls Saturday in Southern California and saw many shoppers without bags. It's likely shoppers who went looking for bargains left without buying much, she said.

Shoppers over the weekend certainly focused on deals.

Bessie Lyles of Huntsville, Ala., arrived at Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta at 6 a.m. Saturday to hunt for deals. She left Macy's with two tops, sweaters, and two pairs of jeans, including one pair for $4, marked down from $34.

To entice shoppers such as Lyles through the rest of this week and into January, retailers are expected to steeply discount what leftovers they do have.

After last year's dismal season, when unplanned discounts 70 percent off or more began appearing well before Christmas, retailers vowed they wouldn't get caught that way again.