NEW YORK - Shoppers who waited until the final days before Christmas were rewarded with big bargains and thinner crowds. But their strategic deal-hunting reflects why stores may not ring up the sales they want for the season.

Although fresh data on the holiday shopping season won't be out until after Christmas, analysts expect growth from last year to be relatively modest. Several factors have dampened shoppers' spirits, including fears that the economy could fall off the "fiscal cliff," triggering tax increases and spending cuts early next year.

On Christmas Eve, Taubman Centers, which operates 28 malls across the country, reported a "very strong weekend," with shoppers taking advantage of all the sales. But many last-minute shoppers across the nation in cities such as New York, Atlanta, and Indianapolis said they were spending less than they did last year and taking advantage of big discounts ranging from 30 percent to 70 percent off.

Kris Betzold, 40, of Carmel, Ind., out Monday at the Fashion Mall at Keystone in Indianapolis looking for deals on toys, said she has noticed the sales were "even better now than they were at Thanksgiving." But she said the economy has prompted her and her husband to be more frugal this year.

"We underbudgeted ourselves by $400 for Christmas," she said, "because we just wanted to put that money back in savings."

Dianne Ashford, 40, who works for a film-production company and was at the Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta on Monday, said she was spending $500 on gifts this year, down from the $1,000 she normally spends.

"Times are hard," said Ashford, who was finishing up shopping on Christmas Eve because she has been working six days a week. The best deal she found this year was a guitar for her mother, half off at $79.

Other last-minute shoppers said they were holding off as much as possible for even bigger post-holiday sales.

Chris Ailes, 37, a TV producer, was at the Lenox Square Mall on Christmas Eve to pick up some last-minute gifts for his mother and grandmother. But with the economy so shaky in recent years, he and his family have talked about cutting back on spending, even though they all have jobs. Christmas hadn't yet arrived, but he was already thinking about the discounts that would soon follow.

"That's when," he said, "the sales are going on."