Some analysts were already expecting the weakest sales growth for the holiday season in 24 years, and with uncertainty roiling the banking system and a teetering economy, they figure Americans will make their lists and check them three or four times.
"I haven't seen this kind of fright since 9/11," said Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of real estate firm Prudential Douglas Elliman's retail leasing sales division. She said stores are "all arming themselves for what is probably the most difficult season across the board."
At malls, shopping districts and on the Web, the discounts are growing desperate. "Up to 60 percent off," say signs at AnnTaylor LOFT stores, "50 percent off" at Old Navy. Restoration Hardware Inc. e-mailed $100 gift vouchers out to customers Thursday for purchases of $400 or more.
Holiday items are starting to flow into stores — and they're expected to be marked down immediately, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group Inc.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, is opening its Christmas shops a week earlier than last year to lure shoppers. Wal-Mart is also cutting prices on 10 popular toys to $10 each. Holiday catalogs are already arriving in the mail.
But it may take more than sale signs and promotions to spur shoppers, who have been dealing for months with high gas and food prices, weaker job and housing markets and tighter credit.