The holiday shopping season turned out to be two seasons: the Black Friday binge and a last-minute surge.
Together, they added up to decent sales gains for retailers. And the doldrums in between showed how shoppers have learned to wait for the discounts they know will come.
"The days that the American consumer gets excited about 25 percent off are over," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group.
In November, spending rose 4.1 percent. And from Dec. 1 to Dec. 24, it rose 4.7 percent compared with the same period last year, according to research firm ShopperTrak. A 4 percent increase is considered a healthy season.
The higher sales are good news for the economy, because they show shoppers were willing to fund a holiday splurge despite high unemployment and other lingering economic woes. Consumer spending, including major items such as health care, accounts for 70 percent of the economy.
Still, plenty of people are pinched for cash in the slow economic recovery, and they were seeking the best deals, which could squeeze stores' profits for the fourth quarter, says Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm.
Heading into the season, stores were nervous that shoppers would be tightfisted. Many officially opened the season with big discounts on TVs and toys that started as early as Thanksgiving Day. Consumers came out in droves, resulting in record spending.
Then the frenzy tapered off. A mild winter and Christmas falling on a Sunday encouraged people to wait until the last minute and accentuated the peaks and valleys of spending.