ATLANTA — Last-minute shoppers crowded into malls and stores during the last weekend before Christmas, but many didn't seem to be in the spending spirit.
This holiday season, Americans have a lot on their minds on top of the now familiar job worries.
Consumers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, who account for 24 percent of retail sales nationwide, were tripped up by Superstorm Sandy in late October. Damage from high winds and flooding disrupted businesses and households for several weeks.
Shoppers are also increasingly worried about the fast approaching "fiscal cliff" deadline -- the possibility that a stalemate between Congress and the White House over the U.S. budget could trigger a series of tax increases and spending cuts starting Jan. 1. Confidence among U.S. consumers dropped to its lowest point in December since July because of growing concerns about the economy, according to a monthly index released Friday.
And the Newtown, Conn., school shootings also dampened shoppers' spirits, analysts said.
This confluence of factors has led to a muted approach to holiday shopping -- bad news for retailers, which can make up to 40 percent of annual sales during November and December and were counting on the last weekend before Christmas to make up for lost dollars earlier in the season. The Saturday before Christmas was expected to be the second biggest sales day behind the Friday after Thanksgiving.
"It's so hard to put yourself in the mood," said Linda Fitzgerald, 51, a nurse from Yonkers, N.Y., who was with her 17-month-old granddaughter at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., on Saturday. She was out Christmas shopping for the first time this year.
She planned to spend $1,500 on gifts such as clothes for her boyfriend, down dramatically from $4,000 last year. She had expected to start shopping a week earlier, but simply didn't feel like it, facing a sister's cancer diagnosis and worry about the economy and the Connecticut shooting.
Similarly, Deborah O'Conner, 51, from Westwood, N.J., also at Garden State Plaza on Saturday, had intentions of finishing her holiday shopping early, but Superstorm Sandy put a wrench in her plans. She spent all last month helping out her parents and a cousin, whose Long Island, N.Y., homes suffered damage
"I had planned to be out early but it didn't happen," said Ms. O'Conner, the mother of three children, ages 22, 19 and 15. "If it weren't for the storm, I would have been done."
Marshal Cohen, chief research analyst at NPD Inc., a market research firm with a network of analysts at shopping centers around the country, estimates that customer traffic over the weekend was in line with the same time a year ago, but shoppers seem to be spending less.
"There was this absence of joy for the holiday," he said. "There was no Christmas spirit. There have been just too many distractions."