Monday

Why Retailers Fear a Red Christmas

Tuesday

The Winter of Misfit Toys

The Good News at the Gap

Wednesday

Retailers Minding Too Many Stores

Holiday Shopping Bag: Maybe the Web Can Work After All

PARAMUS, N.J. -- It's just past 10 a.m. on Black Friday. Nancy O'Brien has been here at the

Garden State Plaza

since 7 a.m., and she's a little stressed out. "It's not my kind of shopping," she says, cell phone in one hand and

Macy's

and

Aeropostale

shopping bags in the other, her eyes darting. "I'm looking for specific items that are on sale."

It's not just the bargain hunting that has her anxious. "Don't ask me about the stock market or who's going to be the president," she says. "I'm worried about dimples! I'm worried about pregnant chads!"

So, most likely, are retailers. Most analysts and economists predicted a relatively tepid holiday sales season even before Nov. 7; the uncertainty about who'll be next to let his friends sleep in the

Lincoln Bedroom is only adding to skittishness generated by gas prices, the

Nasdaq

and a sense that the best of economic times may be behind us.

C. Britt Beemer, founder and CEO of

America's Research Group

, said he had to put off his annual holiday survey because the election chaos meant consumers just weren't ready to talk about their holiday shopping plans. When he released his annual findings on Nov. 16, he projected sales gains of 3.8% compared with last year's 6.8%. (

TheStreet.com

looked into the holiday sales season in a recent series,

The Malls Get Decked.)

The scene at the Garden State Plaza would seem to confirm a slower rate of holiday sales growth. At midmorning, many stores were still empty; one of the longest lines is at the

Muffins & More Cafe

, and only a handful of families wait with children to sit on Santa's lap. A

Coach

(COH)

store attracts a few browsers, but a saleswoman deflects a query about business. "It's still early," she says. "The big action is still in the parking lot."

Of course, no one is ripping up his or her credit cards this holiday season. This is America, where shopping has been elevated to a leisure activity and unemployment is still 3.9%. Even on a lackluster Black Friday, there are pockets of retail activity. But the action seems to be centered around the "sale" signs.

While

Nordstrom's

(JWN) - Get Report

upper floors are nearly empty, its shoe department is packed, with shoppers clustered around sales racks offering discounts of 50% to 60%.

Abercrombie & Fitch

(ANF) - Get Report

is noisy and packed with teen-agers and the parents who fund them. And

Old Navy

, a unit of

Gap

(GPS) - Get Report

, is positively hopping; shoppers sift through a pile of shirts marked down to $7 and the lines are 10-deep.

Outside Old Navy, Leighton Daley stands guard over several bags from

KB Toys

. They're bulging with Barbies for his daughter and his niece. He's been here since 8 a.m. "Last time I came later in the afternoon, and a lot of the stuff I wanted was gone," he says. Daley came from Brooklyn, N.Y., to shop the sales he saw advertised in the paper yesterday. "I'm done with the majority of my shopping," he says.

Retailers are hoping he -- and the other consumers roaming the malls on Black Friday -- come back for more.