In-store and online, shoppers get their holiday markdowns

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The holiday shopping season is coming into crunch time. Halfway through Hanukkah and going into the final stretch of Christmas shopping, shoppers are still holding out. So get ready for some markdowns.

Despite the signs of economic improvement and the surprising pop in November sales, shoppers aren't taking the bait. The Associated Press reported mall parking lots were full last weekend, but shoppers' bags were not.

No big mystery there: Consumer confidence may be improving, but unemployment is still 10%. Shoppers are cautious, so even the rosiest holiday shopping forecast is barely 2% above last year's debacle. November sales figures gave some hope that sales would eventually beat those forecasts, but not if prices sink fast.

All through the season, retailers have known shoppers would dawdle and wait for markdowns. It worked for consumers last year, when retailers were caught off guard and slashed prices up to 90%. This year, merchants have played both sides of the fence, controlling inventory tightly to avoid markdowns, but also planning for special merchandise so they can be all-in from Black Friday to Christmas Eve. They're not taking the risk of losing sales to sticker shock or empty shelves.

And following a mildly disappointing Black Friday, analysts say the deals are coming this week. As NPD Group analyst Marshal Cohen told the AP: "Now it's the consumer's turn." He estimated discounts will start at 50% and go from there.

Even though online stores are doing better than the local malls -- e-commerce tracker ComScore says holiday sales online are running 3% ahead of last year -- e-tailers are also putting on the spurs.

When you checked your e-mail this morning, you may have found a message from Amazon.com (AMZN) warning that your last chance for free shipping will end soon. And FreeShippingDay.org, the annual one-day online shopping promotion which has 591 participating merchants this year, is out promoting it will have its offers live at midnight Thursday, Dec. 17.

In fact, most e-tailers's free shipping offers will expire this week, according to a new study from Shop.org, the National Retail Federation's online arm. And Dec. 18 is the drop-dead cutoff for shoppers who want to get their orders in time for Christmas.

So, many office workers may pretend to work today while shopping on their office computers. That is, unless they're waiting to find better prices at the mall this weekend.

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