T'was the Sunday before the Sunday before Christmas, and all through the stores, so few consumer-creatures were stirring . . . well, I barely waited for a food-court burrito, hardly broke a sweat for parking, and saw virtually none of the long checkout lines retailers expect and need during the holidays.
Uh-oh, I thought to myself. That bad feeling I'd had on Black Friday, after retailers pulled out the stops with Thanksgiving store openings - only to see less-than-killer crowds the next day - had apparently been a sign of more troubling news to come.
There were plenty of people out that Sunday. But at the Court and Plaza at King of Prussia, and at shopping centers in Conshohocken and Philadelphia, it was anything but a madhouse.
A few days after my excursion a week ago, retail-analytics firm ShopperTrak confirmed my dark hunch by reducing its holiday forecast.
By Friday, sale signs were splattered across the Promenade at Sagemore in Marlton: 40 percent off at Ann Taylor Loft; 30 percent off at J. Crew; 40 percent off at Coach; 40 percent off at Banana Republic; 30 percent off at Anthropologie.
This is what you call retailers' trying to make up lost ground in the final stretch. So is this: Stores opening around-the-clock this weekend and into Christmas Eve, a la Macy's and Toys R Us.
This year, Macy's has expanded its foray into 24/7 holiday shopping, with even its Center City store planning to stay open between 7 a.m. Friday and 11 p.m. Sunday, store manager James Kenny said. Last year, only the Cherry Hill Mall store did.
"People shopped really early this year," said Michael Golden in Conshohocken. He is a founder of online-retailing powerhouse GSI Commerce and, more recently, Shoprunner.com (which seeks to give store retailers a sales edge over online-only competitors by helping their Web shoppers pick up orders at their stores).
Golden said holiday sales were up over last year by double-digits for the two weeks starting the Monday before Thanksgiving. Then came a lull in December.
ShopperTrak echoed that Wednesday, predicting the largest weekly sales volume would come in the week just ended and that Saturday would be one of the season's five busiest shopping days.
"Despite this last-minute rush, ShopperTrak now forecasts holiday sales for the months of November and December will increase by about 2.5 percent over last year - down slightly from the 3.3 percent increase it projected in September," the firm said. The discounting of merchandise, and the disruptive impact of Hurricane Sandy on shopping, were cited as reasons.
But there is no denying that the Web also is to blame. I found proof of that Thursday in aisle after aisle at the Center City Macy's.
Young professional women who do most of their holiday shopping online had popped in to the department store on a break, they said, for mostly one reason: last-minute gifts.
Colleen Martin, 35, of Fairmount, was holding a printout of a computer page showing one of the gifts her brother Ryan, 21, had requested.
"His wish list was an e-mail full of hyperlinks," Martin said. (How's that for proof: even a gift list that invites online browsing and buying.)
Martin clicked to find the product online, but with so few days left before Christmas, she decided to venture to a store instead of forking out extra for clutch delivery.
"I didn't want to pay for express shipping to get it by Tuesday," she said. She did little to conceal her disgust with having to brave crowds, lines, and aggravation in stores to shop.
To cope with the sobering reality of slackening sales, retailers last week dusted off the sale signs.
"I think people are getting super-promotional right now," Golden said. "In this last week, it [customer traffic] has been unbelievable again."
Golden said he expected online holiday sales to rise 12 percent to 15 percent when all was said and done, while sales at stores open at least a year - a key indicator in retail - might come in slightly negative compared to last Christmas.
How truly well or badly things turn out won't be known, of course, until early next year, when retailers report their financials. But with even apparel and shoe sales becoming more commonplace on the Internet, this much is clear: The Web is no longer just for shoppers looking for holiday deals on books and consumer electronics.
It is the orca of retailing - and it is gobbling up the younger customers stores would love to have.
"Really, we'll Google and get the best deal for what we're looking for," said mother of two Josselyn Delussey, 33, who bought most of her gifts online before popping in to Macy's on lunch break for a few minutes Thursday.
The big question, Golden said, is how stores deal with this incessant pressure a year from now. Especially because they have already employed such tactics as opening on Thanksgiving, pulling overnighters, and dropping prices.
"They've already pulled out every last trick there was," he said. "I don't know what they do next year."
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