"I had planned to be out early but it didn't happen," said O'Conner, the mother of three children, ages 22, 19 and 15. "If it weren't for the storm, I would have been done."

Marshal Cohen, chief research analyst at NPD Inc., a market research firm with a network of analysts at shopping centers around the country, estimates that customer traffic over the weekend was in line with the same time a year ago, but shoppers seem to be spending less.

"There was this absence of joy for the holiday," he said. "There was no Christmas spirit. There have been just too many distractions."

After a strong Black Friday weekend, the four-day weekend that starts on Thanksgiving, when sales rose 2.7%, the lull that usually follows has been even more pronounced. Sales fell 4.3% for the week ended Dec. 15, according to the latest figures from ShopperTrak, which counts foot traffic and its own proprietary sales numbers from 40,000 retail outlets across the country. On Wednesday, ShopperTrak cut its forecast for holiday spending down to 2.5% growth to $257.7 billion, from prior expectations of a 3.3% rise.

Online, a last-minute surge helped boost sales, which had been tracking well below the projected 17% growth rate for the holiday season, according to comScore, an online research company. Online sales from Nov. 1 through Friday rose 16% to $38.69 billion. The surge was fueled by a free shipping day event that was held on Dec. 17, according to comScore.

Attempting to drum up enthusiasm, retailers have expanded hours and stepped up discounts. Toys R Us stores are staying open for 88 consecutive hours beginning Friday at 6 a.m. through Christmas Eve at 10 p.m. Macy's ( M) opened most stores from Friday at 7 a.m. until Sunday at midnight. And other retailers like Target ( TGT) and Nordstrom ( JWN) expanded hours at some locations.

At the malls, overall promotions were up 2% to 3% from last year heading into the weekend, after being down 5% earlier in the season, according to BMO Capital Markets sales rack index, which tracks the depth and breadth of discounts.

If you liked this article you might like

Toys 'R' Us Store Employees Set for Higher Wages Despite Bankruptcy

Target Expands Next-Day Delivery Program

Target Is Taking on the Big Guys

Cramer: Dominoes Are in Play Today

Walmart Upping Current Worker Hours Instead of Hiring for the Holidays