With just one more shopping weekend before Christmas, it seems US retailers are caught up in a festive waiting game. Will they cave in first on markdowns or will consumers hold out until the last minute in the hope of securing even bigger discounts on their purchases?

"The shopping season is a repeat of last year," says retail analyst Britt Beemer, CEO and founder of America's Research Group (ARG).

"More shoppers are waiting for better deals and stores just aren't giving them big enough discounts."

Beemer says consumers want 60% to 70% off in order to buy - and that they're prepared to wait until 24 December to get more items on sale.

Research published today (16 December) by the National Retail Federation (NRF) confirms shoppers still have plenty of shopping left to do as the Christmas countdown begins.

Its 2009 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, found most have completed less than half of their holiday shopping.

"Retailers know the final lap counts the most and are planning to emphasise promotions and discounts to bring in last-minute shoppers," notes Tracy Mullin, NRF president and CEO.

"As Christmas Day creeps closer, retailers will be ready for an influx of procrastinators, from those who are checking the final names off their list to millions who haven't even started shopping."

Clouding earlier forecasts
The standoff between retailers and shoppers also casts doubt on some earlier forecasts of an improved holiday shopping season in 2009 - and dims hopes of ending the year with a retail comeback.

Most predictions now seem to suggest that this year will show little change from 2008, accelerating fears of a second successive year of sales declines.

And after November retail sales figures came in lower than expected last week, many experts say they expect similar trends for December.

One thing that separates firms this year from last, however, is that inventories have been kept lean in a determined effort not to be stuck with unwanted merchandise.

Which means discounts and promotions will have been factored into a retailer's sales plan rather than a desperate attempt to clear stock at deep discounts.

And while last-minute shoppers are expected to head to discounters and department stores, clothing specialists are also likely see their share of holiday shoppers before the big day.

The NRF reports that the majority of shoppers have purchased apparel so far this year, while Beemer notes sales of children's clothes and winter clothing are particularly strong.

There's no doubt that with the economic recovery in a fragile state, holiday shoppers are in a cautious mood. But retailers are still hoping there's time to get into the festive spirit and ring up unexpected gains.