In a word, many retailers are desperate. They're trying to cram more sales into the next week or so to compensate for the past month of slow sales. One source, MasterCard, says this year's holiday sales are down between 2 and 4 percent.
"Retailers are simply trying to minimize that damage," says Scott Krugman of the National Retail Federation.
"Retailers basically have a week to help make their sales projections for 2008," Krugman says. "And I think they're going to pull every stop. They're not going to pull any punches in order to try to make this happen."
These small acts of desperation are evident everywhere. Stores are papered over with signs advertising 75 percent off. Clearance sales that normally might not start until the crocuses bloom have already arrived.
"The question is when you're competing on price, how do you stand out?" Krugman says. "I think one other thing retailers are doing this year is being more lenient on return policies."
Krugman says returns are part of a strategy to get customers to go to stores. The theory is this: Returns — along with gift cards and huge discounts — can draw people in. Once they're there, the hope is they'll be lured into making one extra purchase.
"I actually was wise when I bought this year," says shopper Russell Delange, outside the Macy's in downtown Washington, D.C. He says he has shown a lot of self-control and held on pretty tight to his wallet.
Delange is a flight attendant from South Africa. Holding a new pair of jeans he bought on sale, he says there weren't too many fellow shoppers in the stores.
That's not a good sign. Krugman says retailers emphasized after-Christmas sales very heavily this year, but the odds are against them.
"We're talking about a recession. We're talking five fewer shopping days than last year. And of course a winter storm for the last week of holiday season. I think there's a lot to make up for."
So far, he says, his trade group's members say the traffic is looking promising. But after so many months of slashing prices, the profit numbers — when they come in early next year — probably won't look so good.