For shoppers, it was a chance to nab some of the deepest discounts of the year. For retailers, it was a chance to salvage some joy following a surprisingly lackluster holiday shopping season.
The day after Christmas brought shoppers out in droves Wednesday. Sacramentans descended on the region's shopping malls to exchange gifts, fight for parking spaces and squeeze out one more bargain before the year ends.
"Hitting the sales," said Rosi Keaton as she strolled through the Westfield Galleria at Roseville. "I always do well with sales."
Executives with several Sacramento area malls, including the Galleria, said they were pleased with holiday results. But just-released statistics suggest it was a disappointing season across the country.
The closely watched MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, an affiliate of the big credit-card issuer, showed that holiday sales increased just 0.7 percent this year. That compared with a 2 percent gain a year ago, despite an improving economy.
"It's a lost season," SpendingPulse analyst Michael McNamara told the Wall Street Journal.
The International Council of Shopping Centers' weekly snapshot was more encouraging, showing a 3.2 percent gain for the week ending last Saturday.
But the consensus was that it was a downbeat holiday season, with sales increases likely to fall short of the 4.1 percent forecast by the National Retail Federation. That translates into sweeter post-Christmas discounts as retailers try to salvage something from the season.
"The next few days are critical for retailers. They've got some catching up to do," Marshal Cohen, retail industry analyst with NPD Group of New York, told NBC News.
Analysts said superstorm Sandy cut into business on the East Coast, while general anxiety about the economy and the "fiscal cliff" put a crimp on shopping just about everywhere.
"The fiscal cliff is a little nerve-wracking," said Amanda Medina of Roseville as she shopped at the Galleria with her husband and three young sons. She said the uncertainty about the economy and higher taxes made her family somewhat more cautious about shopping.
Sung Won Sohn, an economist at California State University, Channel Islands, said, "People are still cautious."
Sohn, who is also vice chairman of the Forever 21 retail chain, said sales were hurt by a lack of must-buy apparel and electronics items.
He also said consumers have become almost fanatical about keeping their wallets shut until they're convinced they're getting a terrific deal. His wife, for instance, did very little shopping before Christmas but was up early Wednesday to find bargains.
"People are more value-conscious," he said. "People want the whole shebang."
Carrie Chew of Elk Grove, who was shopping at the Galleria with her daughter, put it this way: "If they don't have great sales, what's the point?"
But Chew said shoppers' attitudes aren't simply about the hankering for a bargain. Rather, it's about a growing sense of caution, brought on by the lingering memories of the recession.
"Everybody over the last few years has started to cut back some," she said. "There's probably a more conservative approach to spending."
There was certainly no shortage of bargains: Kohl's was touting discounts of 60 percent to 70 percent through New Year's Day, while Barnes & Noble was offering anywhere from 50 percent to 85 percent off some items.
The weak holiday results prompted investors to shy away from retailers' stocks Wednesday. Abercrombie & Fitch shares fell 3.5 percent, Gap was down 3.1 percent, Amazon dropped 3.9 percent and Ralph Lauren fell 3.3 percent. One of the few exceptions was J.C. Penney Co., which rose 4.4 percent.
It was unclear how the season played out in Sacramento, where the economy has been improving in recent months but is still far from robust. Unemployment in the region fell in October to its lowest point in nearly four years 9.8 percent but was stalled at that same level in November.
Officials at major area malls, including Arden Fair and Downtown Plaza, have said in the past week that the season was looking strong overall.
Westfield Galleria officials said they, too, were pleased with the results, with most merchants reporting an improvement over last year. "In talking to the larger department stores and the smaller shops, they were happy," said Galleria marketing manager Stephanie Ringey. "Everybody was very happy with sales and traffic."
At midday Wednesday, parking spaces at the Galleria were at a premium and floor traffic was heavy.
"It's pretty brisk today," Ringey said.