NEW YORK - You won't find uncommonly deep discounts, but you won't have to worry about finding something to buy, either. For the first time in three years, the Christmas season is looking brighter for stores and shoppers alike.
Stores are trying to attract late shoppers with measured discounts and other gimmicks, including pulling all-nighters and pushing more last-minute gifts.
Consumers are more primed to spend than they have been in several years. Projections for holiday spending are starting to approach prerecession levels. The National Retail Federation and research firm ShopperTrak raised their holiday forecasts this week.
Shoppers spent more than expected in November, helped by early discounts. And even though they have backed off in early December more than stores had hoped, analysts and retailers are not worried.
That's because a burst of spending takes place in the 10 days before Christmas, a period that accounted for 34 percent of holiday sales last year, up from 31 percent in 2006, according to ShopperTrak.
Store inventories are not as depleted as last year, when merchants scared about having too many leftovers began the season with skimpy offerings.
Those seeking some of the hot toys such as Mattel Inc.'s Monster High dolls will have a hard time, though Toys R Us says it will keep getting daily shipments of the season's hot toys.
"We are in a very good stock position," said Kathleen Waugh, a Toys R Us spokeswoman. "We picked the right toys. We'll be ready around the clock."
The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, raised its holiday forecast to 3.3 percent from its original projection that sales would climb 2.3 percent. That would put holiday sales at $451.5 billion, close to the holiday 2007 levels of $452.8 billion and well above 2006's $444.7 billion. The figure excludes auto, restaurant, and gasoline sales.
The increasing optimism comes as government figures released Tuesday showed that retail sales for November increased 0.8 percent over October.
A lot depends on this weekend, the last before Christmas. If stores do not make their sales goals, shoppers may see steeper discounts in the final days. Stores are betting that will not happen.
"You're definitely not going to see the fire sales. The discounts will be measured," said Sherif Mityas, partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney. He said that clothing discounts in general would not be much more than 40 percent this weekend. "Retailers have learned a lot during the recession."
Among those lessons: Shoppers often need a discount or a gimmick to buy.
Toys R Us plans to keep its stores open for 88 straight hours, from 6 a.m. Tuesday until 10 p.m. Christmas Eve. This is the first time the entire chain will be open in the final countdown to the holiday.
Macy's Inc. has increased the number of stores pulling all-nighters starting next Tuesday to 14 from last year's 12; a few others will stay open until 2 a.m. next week.
So far, analysts say, Target's 5 percent discount for paying with the discounter's branded debit and credit card is stealing sales from other rivals. Chandra Blatt, 38, of Hillsdale, N.J., who was at the Target store in Paramus, N.J., on Friday, said she would do about half her Christmas shopping at the store this year because of the incentive.
"Every little bit helps," Blatt said. She said she saved $24.01 because of the discount. But she will not spend more overall. She and her husband got jobs earlier this year after being unemployed for a year, so they are "still playing catch-up," she said.