Chris Kriske, a Sacramento construction worker, has watched his industry crawl out of the recession in recent months. Just the same, he hardly went wild on holiday shopping this season.
"I'm not worried about the economy, but I'm being cautious," he said during a Christmas Eve stroll through Arden Fair mall on Monday morning.
Kriske's conservatism encapsulated the wind-down of the holiday shopping season in Sacramento and elsewhere. It was a good Christmas for retailers – befitting an economy that's on the mend – but not a spectacular one.
The final tallies won't be available for some time. But experts said the improvement in sales probably wasn't as big as most retailers would have liked.
The National Retail Federation forecast a 4.1 percent sales increase, somewhat lower than the 5.6 percent gain recorded last year.
Chicago consulting firm ShopperTrak actually lowered its national holiday forecast last week, projecting that sales would grow 2.5 percent instead of 3.3 percent.
Lingering concerns about the economy helped dampen the mood. So did the prospect of a so-called fiscal cliff that would send taxes shooting up unless the White House and Congress could make a last-minute budget deal.
Even those consumers whose personal circumstances improved considerably this year are rattled by the news out of Washington.
Davis resident Will Irving, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. welder who was among the early birds at Arden Fair, said he worked a lot of additional hours this year and was able to spend more money than last year on Christmas.
Nonetheless, he couldn't get the fiscal cliff and its implications for the economy out of his mind.
"It was a good year for me personally, but in general (the economy) scares me," Irving said.
Still, the mood among holiday shoppers was far brighter than it was three or four years ago, when Sacramento was slogging through a seemingly endless recession.
The real estate market has turned around, and the general economy has perked up noticeably in recent months. Although November's job figures were disappointing, unemployment has fallen below 10 percent in the region for the first time since early 2009.
The relative good cheer has improved the retail scene. Sacramento area retailers added a combined 5,200 workers to their payrolls in October and November. That compared with 4,700 a year earlier.
What's more, Sacramento has recaptured a little more than half the 13,000 retail jobs that disappeared during the recession, according to the state Employment Development Department.
Even struggling malls showed signs of life this season. Downtown Plaza, purchased for a mere $22 million in August by San Francisco's JMA Ventures, saw a 7 percent sales increase in November, said mall manager Raelene Trumm in an email. The figures don't include Macy's, which owns its own real estate and isn't a mall tenant.
Trumm said there were no sales figures yet for December, but foot traffic was up 9 percent through last Friday.
Tod Strain, manager of Arden Fair, said last week that most of the mall's tenants were reporting higher sales compared to a year ago.
Laurie Eaton of Sacramento was among those who spent more than last year. Her reason had less to do with the economy than with emotion.
"I'm a little caught up in the season this year ... caught up in the spirit," she said as she headed into Nordstrom at Arden Fair.
Retail analysts said tracking the holiday's sales was becoming difficult because American consumers are increasingly waiting until the final days of the season to open their wallets.
As of two weeks ago, sales had crept up just 2.5 percent from a year earlier, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The council predicted that would improve over the final two weeks of the season, and sales would wind up 3.3 percent ahead of last year.
There were plenty of opportunities for 11th-hour deals. The Target store on Sacramento's Riverside Boulevard was scheduled to stay open until 9 p.m.; the Walmart Supercenter in West Sacramento was open until 8 p.m. Most Toys "R" Us stores in the region were planning a 10 p.m. shutdown.
At Arden Fair, Jennifer Pudlo was among those who had waited until the last minute. Less than two hours after the mall opened, she was clutching an armful of bags.
"I'm at $500 already today," she said. "But I only do one day."