| SAN FRANCISCO
SAN FRANCISCO Retailers opened their doors early to recession-weary shoppers on Saturday in a final, frenzied push to save holiday sales with the added disruption of a winter storm heading for the country's Midwest and Northeast.
The National Retail Federation predicted that two-thirds of Americans still had holiday shopping left to do but foul weather kept many close to home in some parts of the country on Friday. Freezing rain and snow were expected for several regions through the weekend.
The storms hit at the worst possible time for U.S. store chains, which are trying to salvage the critical holiday shopping season amid a flagging economy and lure consumers with last-minute deals before Christmas next week.
Many shoppers have said they are giving fewer gifts and looking only for marked-down merchandise, grim news for retailers who may see their weakest holiday season since the early 1990s.
"It's bad news," said Scott Bernhardt, chief operating officer of national weather forecasting service Planalytics, speaking of Friday's storm and another to hit later on Saturday.
"Today is the day -- it's going to count more than ever because you're not getting Sunday," Bernhardt said. "That first storm really shocked people and when the weatherman says it's going to snow on Sunday it will keep people away."
The inclement weather put extra pressure on retailers to ring up sales on "Super Saturday," the final Saturday before Christmas.
But in many areas around the country, shoppers were slow to rouse, retail watchers said, and store traffic only gained momentum later in the day, despite some stores like Macy's opening its doors at 6 a.m.
"The shoppers are just not rushed, they're not panicked," said NPD Group retail analyst Marshal Cohen, who has been visiting malls in the New York region. "The consumer is saying, 'I'll shop in the odd hours. I don't have to be the first one in the stores.'"
The less-than-frenzied atmosphere sat well with Larry DaVanzo, 52, who was in a Gap Inc Old Navy store in downtown San Francisco -- where the weather was cold but sunny -- buying presents for his nieces and nephews.
"It's been super so far," said DaVanzo, calling himself a holiday shopping procrastinator. "Easy in, easy out. Great deals."
Susan Strong, 53, who was shopping at Macy's, said she was surprised to see a nearly empty store in the morning hours, despite items, including Christmas cards, at 60 percent off.
"I think maybe today they thought they'd get last minute people in," she said of the store. "But the (retailers') sales might not be as good as they expected."
Macy's posted a sign at its downtown San Francisco store saying that morning specials advertised to expire at 1 p.m. would be extended until 3 p.m.
"Super Saturday" usually ranks just behind "Black Friday" as the single-largest holiday sales day. Black Friday fell on November 28 this year, the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.
Still, fewer shoppers in stores could be a serious blow to store chains, who may be forced to further mark down merchandise. Prices have been reduced so much that profit margins will take a steep hit, experts predict.
"We'll see an awful lot of merchandise moved out but not a lot of dollars and that means retailers will still be behind the eight ball," said Cohen.
Carrie Grant, shopping in downtown Chicago, where the weather was to worsen by evening, was carrying a shopping bag full of gifts for her new nephew.
"The stores were crowded," she said, adding that many people appeared to be "looking but not buying."
Rhonda Showman, 59, who was visiting San Francisco from Phoenix, said she was taking advantage of the discounts, shopping at Ross Stores Inc and department stores.
"My gosh, everywhere you go, there are sales, sales, sales," she said.
The weekend before Christmas typically accounts for some 11.5 percent of holiday sales, according to ShopperTrak, which monitors shoppers at more than 50,000 retail locations.
(Additional reporting by Mark Weinraub in Chicago)