The story of crowds overrunning stores the day after Christmas continued its shift to near-mythical status Wednesday as consumers' ongoing frugality - combined with the growing community of online-shopping devotees - meant that postholiday commerce was likely to disappoint retailers relying on bricks-and-mortar locations to sell their wares.
Healthy throngs braved sleet and chilling rain to partake in the annual tradition of returning unwanted holiday gifts, looking for postholiday discounts or just killing time during a vacation week. But few appeared to be hauling off bags of swag, further proof that even four years after the global financial crisis of 2008, the American consumer remains a markedly tamed beast.
Nowhere, perhaps, was this sustained new normal more painfully evident than at a Best Buy store in King of Prussia, where by 1 p.m. there were few to zero people standing in customer-service rope lines, shoppers were so scant that clerks huddled and shot the breeze near displays, and a wall of stunning flat-screen TVs listed for just under $1,000 drew not even a single set of curious eyes during a brief walk-through.
The big-box retailer, which only a few years ago seemed unstoppable in the consumer-electronics realm, continued to display the overwhelming symptoms of being battered by online competitors, even as a fight for control over its future plays out in its boardroom and real estate professionals privately handicap the odds of store closings.
Many who streamed in at midday were carrying only gift cards or hopes for a rare steal - and the conviction that nothing less would do. Many left empty-handed or, like Benjamin Duff, 27, of West Norriton, purchased only modest gifts. Duff made off with a $42 pair of headphones - not marked down. He paid full price only because he had a $50 gift card.
The reason for his parsimony? Continued fears about his income, despite economic forecasts showing a slight housing rebound or some reversal of still-high national unemployment.
"Right now," said Duff, who spent less on Christmas gifts than in prior years, "my company is going through a 'fit for the future,' they call it. They're restructuring. They're having people apply for their jobs."
The leasing firm for which he works as a contract administrator is going through each department to evaluate costs and function. Were employees being rehired into their jobs at reduced wages? Duff smiled without offering an answer, then rushed to his car because his lunch break was almost over.
Even a flat-screen marked down to $389 was not persuasively affordable for 54-year-old Joe Geeter of Limerick. He left without buying the 40-inch TV he saw in a Best Buy circular.
"I'm going to go to Walmart to see what kind of price they have there," Geeter said. He added that it seemed that fewer crowds were out compared with the same day a year ago, when he also scoured a few local stores for opportunistic buys.
Television crews with satellite trucks dutifully camped out at King of Prussia mall, seemingly unaware that beyond the sight of near-full parking lots, few people were scooping up marked-down merchandise, as they had done almost annually in the years leading up to the crash of '08.
As that years-old American consumer story line has changed, so have the fortunes of many store-based retailers, whose holiday sales were forecast to be lower than even optimists had hoped for.
"I thought there'd be long lines," said Vicki Beal, 57, of Malvern, who sat for a break in the food court at the Court of King of Prussia with Lynne Hayden, 56, of Center City, an art teacher in the Council Rock School District. Each had small plastic bags from Macy's.
The women landed at the East Coast's largest mall only on a lark - Hayden's son had left a cellphone at Beal's Malvern house on Christmas. They decided to meet halfway to hand off the phone - and check out the shopping for the heck of it.
"We got a parking spot right away," said Hayden.
Beal had to swap a clothing gift for size at Macy's - and got herself $7 back because it had been marked down. Hayden, meanwhile, picked up a trio of marked-down knit sweaters at $15 a pop. But that was it.
"I think more people were more guarded with money this year," said Hayden, who stood in line the day before Black Friday at Target in South Philadelphia to buy an iPad at $50 off, plus a $60 Target gift card.
Before the recession punctured Americans' credit-fueled consumerism, manufacturers and retailers produced and sold so many goods, and so cheaply, that they marked them down en masse after the holidays.
These days, though, sales are less spectacular and less prevalent, because inventory is tighter and shopper appetites to spend remain meager.
The real winners continue to be those engaged in online commerce, from retailers to delivery firms.
A Chase Holiday Pulse survey released Wednesday that aggregated payment-processing data from Chase Paymentech's largest U.S. online merchants found that year-to-date sales had increased by 15.2 percent.
FedEx said Wednesday that it expected returns to online retailers sent via its ground crews would "surge more than 25 percent" this year.
Even at big-box titan Target, in Cherry Hill, lines were not unmanageably thick Wednesday, despite some customer returns.
Elsa Parsi of Pennsauken arrived early in the afternoon with her daughter and four grandchildren to return a pair of boots.
"I have the day off, and I have the kids," Parsi said, "so we decided to come to make a return."
The line was always brought under control quickly, either a testament to finely honed logistics or sparse customer volume.
Of about 30 customers who reportedly waited in line in the bitter cold for the store to open at 7 a.m., only one person had a return item. The others, according to a manager who would not give her name, were looking for sales or gifts they had not bought before Christmas.