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US consumers fall behind in holiday shopping

The holiday shopping that consumers have completed so far this season is at a five-year low in the US, according to a new survey, raising the stakes for retailers in their last major push to capture sales this year.

Consumers on average had completed 46.7% of their holiday shopping by the second week of December, according to the survey by the National Retail Federation released on Wednesday.

That is down from the 47.1% completed by this time last year and marks the lowest%age completed since 2004. The NRF still expects total holiday season sales to fall 1% this year, an unprecedented drop for two straight years since a financial markets crisis erupted in late 2008.

Last year, retailers slashed prices more steeply than planned to lure shoppers. They have since cut inventories and planned their discounts more carefully.

“This year, seasonal promotions are well thought out, they're strategic and they're targeted,” said Richard Hastings, consumer strategist with Global Hunter Securities.

The big test will come on December 19, or “Super Saturday,” the last major shopping day this year before Christmas.

“Retailers know the final lap counts the most and are planning to emphasize promotions and discounts to bring in last-minute shoppers,” NRF President Tracy Mullin said in a statement.

While Hastings sees Super Saturday as a crucial day for retailers, he does not expect them to have to resort to unplanned promotions to clear merchandise.

Retail executives have also tried to warn shoppers they could lose out on the opportunity to buy key gifts if they waited too long.

But the holiday shopping season has gotten off to a slow start as many consumers wait for deeper discounts. Retailers from Macy's Inc to Costco Wholesale Corp reported November sales that missed Wall Street expectations as consumers focused on buying only the biggest bargains.

According to the NRF survey, nearly 42 million people, or 19.1% of shoppers, had not even started their shopping as of late last week, while 8.6% of shoppers have completely finished.

The Standard & Poor's Retail Index rose 0.1% on Wednesday, underperforming the wider market. (Reuters)