Many retailers opened before 6 a.m., offering 50 percent to 75 percent off on toys, furniture, electronics and clothing. J.C. Penney opened at 5:30 a.m. - the earliest post-Christmas opening in the chain's history - and offered customers more than 100 "doorbusters" until 1 p.m, including 75 percent off Christmas decorations. The chain even made wake-up calls to customers who signed up online.
Laura Hernandez, a 37-year-old nurse, hoped to find a good deal at a Miami-area Wal-Mart on the one present her husband and son had really wanted - a plasma TV.
"When they saw that there was no Christmas gift larger than the Christmas tree, they knew there was no TV," Hernandez said. "They know Mommy is out early this morning bringing home their new toy."
Lisa Gillespie, 42, was meeting her niece to buy her a late Christmas present at Macy's flagship store in Manhattan. She found a purse for $20 in a bin marked 65 percent off.
"Even if I don't end up liking it, I can always bring it back," the Manhattan resident said. "These are crazy deals. I have eight coupons. We won't overshop, but we will shop."
Stores were hoping the discounts would entice shoppers to redeem gift cards and use cash from returning unwanted gifts to buy something new.
But with gift card sales down this holiday season and consumers looking to save money rather than spend it, even the big discounts may not be enough to salvage what looks to be one of the most dismal holiday shopping seasons in years.
"The last week of December represents about 14 percent of Christmas sales," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group. "You can't save a season with only one-seventh of the sales to go."
The holiday season - which typically accounts for 30 percent to 50 percent of a retailer's annual total sales - has been less than jolly for most retailers. Job cuts, portfolio losses and other economic woes have convinced consumers to cut back on their spending. Meanwhile, strong winter storms during the holiday season kept some would-be shoppers at home.
According to preliminary data from SpendingPulse - a division of MasterCard Advisors that tracks total sales paid for by credit card, checks and cash - retail sales fell between 5.5 percent and 8 percent during the holiday season compared with last year. Excluding auto and gas sales, they fell 2 percent to 4 percent, according to SpendingPulse.
Sales of women's clothing dropped nearly 23 percent while men's clothing sales slipped more than 14 percent. Footwear sales fell 13.5 percent. Sales of electronics and appliances fell even more drastically, dropping almost 27 percent.
More consumers appeared to do their shopping online, particularly in the last two weeks of the season when storms snowed shoppers in. Online sales dipped just 2.3 percent from the 2007 holiday season, according to SpendingPulse.
Online retailer Amazon.com said Friday the 2008 holiday season was its "best ever," with more than 6.3 million items ordered. Holiday bestsellers included the Nintendo Wii, Samsung's 52-inch LCD HDTV, the Apple iPod touch and the Blokus board game.
A better indicator of how retailers fared will arrive Jan. 8, when major stores report same-store sales, or sales at locations open at least a year, for December.
With sales so far slim, retailers were hoping the day after Christmas would bring out bargain-hunters.
Sears stores were opening several hours early at 7 a.m. and offering doorbuster deals through noon, such as 65 percent off all women's boots. Toys R Us said it was cutting prices by 60 percent on some brands.
Some retailers such as Target are pushing online deals, rather than in-store promotions. Target said it is putting thousands of items on clearance and making them eligible for free shipping the day after Christmas.
The deals still weren't enough for some shoppers.
Paul McAdam, 48, of Everett, Mass., took a 20 percent pay cut recently and was shopping for "items I need in a price range I can't pass up."
"I'm a little disappointed because a lot of the prices seem to be about the same as before Christmas," he said.
Newlywed Anthony Guites, 32, planned to stop at three different Miami-area stores to return gifts from his wife. He had three things to exchange at Wal-Mart for a fishing rod he wanted.
"She got me a fishing rod that I don't like. She got me this tool set that I already have. And she got me workout clothes that, let's just say, are way too colorful for me," he said.
Beemer said retailers may be greeting a lot of shoppers like Guites, and see returns up 50 percent to 60 percent.
"The one thing I heard last night from parents is that when kids got gifts that weren't exactly right, they're taking them back to the stores," Beemer said.