NEW YORK — When it comes to fat holiday discounts, better late than never.
This holiday shopping season, many stores haven't been offering the same blockbuster deals as they have in years past. Instead, they've dangled offers of free shipping and no-fee layaways to lure shoppers.
But during the final weekend before Christmas, shoppers should expect to see more "70 percent off" and "buy one, get one free" signs as stores try to salvage a season that so far has been disappointing.
Teen retailer Aeropostale Inc. has slashed prices on everything in its stores by 60 percent. Rival teen chain American Eagle Outfitters is offering 40 percent off all purchases. Saks Fifth Avenue is cutting prices on some designer clothing up to 60 percent. And Children's Place, a children's clothing chain, is offering up to 75 percent off on its website.
The discounts are aimed at luring shoppers like Jennifer Romanello, who lives in Rockville Centre, N.Y. Romanello, a former publishing executive who was laid off in June, is planning to spend $400 less on holiday gifts this season as she spent a year ago. She said she'll be looking for deep discounts when she heads to stores this weekend.
"I just want to be cautious," said Romanello, 47, who has two children, ages 12 and 15. "If it's a great deal, I will consider."
The discounting may be good news for shoppers, but the price slashing hurts stores. That's because stores' profits likely will suffer in their last-ditch effort to boost sales during the two-month holiday shopping period, a time when they can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue.
To be sure, stores have been offering discounts throughout the season, but they resisted the blockbuster deals that ate away at profits last year. In fact, promotions and other discounting efforts were down 5 percent through Dec. 10 compared with last year, according to BMO Capital Markets, which tracks promotions at about two-thirds of mall stores. But sales have been slow, so stores will have to rely on the final days before Christmas to make up the difference.
ShopperTrak, which counts foot traffic and its own proprietary sales numbers from 40,000 retail outlets across the country, said Wednesday that the number of shoppers in stores for the week that ended on Saturday fell 4.4 percent from the year-ago period, while sales declined 4.3 percent.
As a result, the company said it would slash its sales forecast to a 2.5 percent increase, down from the 3.3 percent growth it had initially predicted. That's much lower than last year's growth of 3.7 percent. The company declined to give dollar figures.
"We were hoping that this past Saturday would be the kick off to good things to come, but it feels like the steam is out of the holiday since Black Friday," said Bill Martin, ShopperTrak's co-founder.
Indeed, many shoppers have been weighed down by concerns about their financial future. Some have concerns about the weak U.S. job market. Others worry about the possibility that a stalemate between Congress and the White House over the U.S. budget could trigger tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff" next year. That would mean less money in shoppers' pockets.