Experts say the final week of December accounts for about 15 percent of the month's sales.The Westfield MainPlace mall in Santa Ana opened at 7 a.m., three hours earlier than normal. But despite steep discounts, the parking lot was relatively empty during the morning hours.
"I was shocked. I thought there was going to be so many people returning things, and I thought the parking lot was going to be packed as it was on Christmas Eve, but it wasn't. It was amazing," said Laura Carvalho of Fullerton.
The best deals were found for winter clothes, as stores try to clear out their inventory for spring and summer clothing. One mall official said the discounts seem to be steeper than last year, and shoppers said they noticed the same thing.
Sales of electronics, clothing, jewelry and home goods in the two months before Christmas increased 0.7 percent compared with last year, according to the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse report. That was below the healthy 3 to 4 percent growth that analysts had expected.
It was the worst year-over-year performance since 2008, when spending shrank sharply during the Great Recession. In 2011, retail sales climbed 4 to 5 percent during November and December, according to ShopperTrak.
This year's shopping season was marred by bad weather and rising uncertainty about the economy in the face of possible tax hikes and spending cuts early next year. Some analysts say the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., earlier this month may also have chipped away at shoppers' enthusiasm.
Holiday sales are a crucial indicator of the economy's strength. November and December account for up to 40 percent of annual sales for many retailers. If those sales don't materialize, stores are forced to offer steeper discounts. That's a boon for shoppers, but it cuts into stores' profits.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.