By Anne D'Innocenzio and Mae Anderson
ATLANTA -- Last-minute shoppers crowded into malls and stores to scoop up discounted clothing and toys during the last weekend before Christmas, but many didn't seem to be in the spending spirit.
This holiday season, Americans have a lot on their minds on top of the now familiar job worries.
Consumers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, which account for 24% of retail sales nationwide, were tripped up by Superstorm Sandy. The storm hit in late October and disrupted businesses and households for several weeks.
Shoppers are also increasingly worried about the fast approaching "fiscal cliff" deadline -- the possibility that a stalemate between Congress and the White House over the U.S. budget could trigger a series of tax increases and spending cuts starting Jan. 1. Confidence among U.S. consumers dropped to its lowest point in December since July because of growing concerns about the economy, according to a monthly index released Friday.
And the recent Newtown, Conn., school shooting also dampened shoppers' spirits, analysts said.
This confluence of factors has led to a muted approach to holiday shopping -- bad news for retailers, which can make up to 40% of annual sales during November and December and were counting on the last weekend before Christmas to make up for lost dollars earlier in the season. The Saturday before Christmas was expected to be the second biggest sales day behind the Friday after Thanksgiving.
"It's so hard to put yourself in the mood," said Linda Fitzgerald, a 51-year-old nurse from Yonkers who was with her 17-month-old granddaughter at The Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., on Saturday. She was out Christmas shopping for the first time this year.
She planned to spend $1,500 on gifts such as clothes for her boyfriend, down dramatically from $4,000 last year. She had expected to start shopping last weekend, but simply didn't feel like it, facing a sister's cancer diagnosis and worry about the economy and the Connecticut shooting.
Similarly, Deborah O'Conner, 51, from Westwood, N.J., also at Garden State Plaza on Saturday, had intentions of finishing her holiday shopping early, but Superstorm Sandy put a wrench in her plans. She spent all last month helping out her parents and her cousin, whose Long Island, N.Y., homes suffered damage