Last-minute shoppers in the Hudson Valley and around the country swarmed to stores Sunday as Christmas approached in what analysts described as a "nail-biter" for retailers hoping to beat last year's sales figures.
C. Britt Beemer, chairman and chief executive of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C., said consumers' determination to get a bargain and an overhang of last-minute shoppers made for a tough retail climate.
"It's been a challenging season," he said. "I'd describe this as a nail-biter."
In the final analysis, Beemer said he expects holiday retail sales to be up 1.8-2.8 percent, but the late shopping surge injects considerable uncertainty.
More than one in five shoppers surveyed Saturday night said they needed to shop on Friday and Saturday to get their Christmas buying substantially finished, Beemer said. An additional 10 percent surveyed said they thought they would finish their shopping on Sunday.
A Consumer Reports survey found a similar trend, with two-thirds of those surveyed saying they hadn't finished their shopping at the end of last week, and an estimated 17 million people expected to still be shopping Monday.
"I am totally a last-minute Christmas shopper," she said. "I'm shopping for everybody today, and I'm not even close to done yet!"
Keeping a lid on spending in the Northeast were stubbornly high levels of unemployment and the impact of superstorm Sandy, Beemer said. Sixteen percent of consumers in the region affected by Sandy said they would have to cut spending on gifts in the aftermath of the storm.
Still, at least some shoppers caught the holiday spirit.
Lucia Rodriguez of New York City said that her visit to the Guess store in the Cross County Shopping Center was part of a marathon shopping spree.
"I've been shopping all day," she said. "I feel like I've bought everything in the store! I was just going to buy one watch for my sister, but I know my other sister is going to be jealous, so I came back to buy two!"
Though online activity accounted for 21.4 percent of buying visits for the week that ended Dec. 15, according to consumer researcher The NPD Group, that share was expected to shrink at the end of the holiday shopping season, chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen said in a report. For the week that ended Dec. 15, 57 percent of U.S. consumers shopped at brick-and-mortar retail stores, an increase of 1 percentage point from the prior week.
A report by ShopperTrak, which gauges activity in retail stores, said that the unusually long 32-day interval between Black Friday -- the Friday after Thanksgiving -- and Christmas prompted shoppers to put off purchases.
With the last-minute rush, ShopperTrak predicted that foot traffic in retail stores will increase 2.8 percent over 2011 and that sales will climb by about 2.5 percent, down from the 3.3 percent forecast in September. Chicago-based ShopperTrak attributed the lowered forecast to heavily discounted merchandise and the impact of Sandy.
Cohen said he had been peppered with questions about whether the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., had sapped shoppers' enthusiasm for the holiday. The analyst said the two are not related and that the weak holiday spending "is due to the lack of excitement in merchandise."
If anything, he said, parents, mindful of the tragedy, will try to "even make the holiday more special."