CHICAGO Just 38.7 percent of Americans went shopping during the final weekend before Christmas, the lowest turnout in at least six years, according to a survey released on Tuesday.
The traffic was especially weak in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, which were hit by winter storms from Friday through Sunday. People who did shop flocked to stores offering deep discounts, led by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
The percentage of Americans shopping this past weekend is down from 41.6 in 2007, according to the survey by America's Research Group and UBS.
Wal-Mart was the big winner of the weekend, with 69 percent of shoppers saying they visited its stores, up from just 33 percent during the same weekend last year.
The International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, said sales in the week ended Saturday, December 20, fell 0.6 percent from a year earlier. Last week's sales rose 2.6 percent from a week earlier.
The last Saturday before Christmas, or "Super Saturday," usually ranks just behind "Black Friday" -- the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday -- as the single largest holiday sales day.
But snowstorms and frigid temperatures hit several areas of the United States, putting a damper on what is already expected to be the weakest holiday season in up to four decades.
"Even in areas where the weather wasn't bad, though, the shopper levels were not good. In areas where there was bad weather, obviously it was even more of a downer," said Britt Beemer, founder and chief executive of America's Research Group.
Shares tracked by the Standard & Poor's Retail Index were down 0.4 percent early on Tuesday compared with a slight rise for the wider market. Wal-Mart shares fell 0.1 percent.
FEWER GIFT CARDS
The U.S. economy has been suffering from a recession since December 2007, and tighter credit and more job losses are pressuring consumers' already tight budgets.
Shoppers are also buying fewer gift cards this year, worried that retailers might go out of business before the cards can be used.
Beemer and other retail experts expect there could be more retail bankruptcies in 2009 than usual as chains that came up short this holiday season fight to survive. Circuit City Stores Inc and KB Toys are among the companies that have already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Wal-Mart was the only retailer Beemer called a "star performer" because it retained 91.2 percent of last year's holiday shoppers this season, according to the survey.
Retailers that kept less than 69 percent of last holiday season's shoppers included American Eagle Outfitters Inc, Lowe's Cos Inc, Macy's Inc, Wal-Mart's Sam's Club, Walgreen Co, Dillard's Inc and Sports Authority Inc.
Just 51.5 percent of people surveyed said they have bought gift cards so far this year, down from 57.6 percent at the same time last year. By this time in 2006, 66.8 percent had bought gift cards, Beemer said.
Once again, toys topped the list as the top gift.
The sixth and final installment of the America's Research Group/UBS Christmas Survey for 2008 included 1,000 telephone interviews conducted on Saturday and Sunday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percent.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Dave Zimmerman)