The all-important last weekend before Christmas offered little sales cheer for America's retailers.

Wal-Mart -- the globe's largest stores group -- was lukewarm. Last-minute buying, said a spokesman, showed "some improvement" but was insufficient to atone for lackluster business earlier in December.

The group's same-store sales growth was trawling the bottom of the predicted 3% to 5% range, while for the second week running traffic was down year-on-year.

Consumer reluctance to shop in crowded places may have contributed to the malaise, believes C Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, citing the US government's recent ramping-up of the terrorist attack alert.

This, says Beemer, "could reduce retailers' ability to have a huge business (yesterday and today) and the week after Christmas. It may likely make people who are close to being done decide they've purchased enough."

Not all retailers share this view. "Consumers learned to be vigilant, and I don't think this will have an effect", opined a spokeswoman for Taubman Centers, owner of 31 shopping centers in thirteen states. The National Retail Federation's Ellen Tolley agreed: "Since September 11, consumers have learned to go on with their lives."

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, the final week before Christmas accounted for 41% of holiday sales, although consumers appear to be waiting longer. An ICSC survey, conducted over the seven days to December 10, shows ten percent of the 6,800 consumers polled had completed their shopping. This compares with 15% during the same period in 2002.

Online sales, however, have reached orbital velocity to hit the top end of expectations. According to comScore Networks, holiday online sales are expected to generate sales growth at the high end of its forecast range of 25% to 30%.

Data sourced from: Seattle Post-Intelligencer; additional content by WARC staff