NEW YORK (Reuters) - The holiday shopping that consumers have completed so far this season is at a five-year low, 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 percent 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 percent completed by this time last year and marks the lowest percentage completed since 2004. The NRF still expects total holiday season sales to fall 1 percent 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 percent of shoppers, had not even started their shopping as of late last week, while 8.6 percent of shoppers have completely finished.
The Standard & Poor's Retail Index rose 0.1 percent on Wednesday, underperforming the wider market.
Separate data released on Wednesday showed shoppers may have headed to stores on Saturday, December 12 -- a day not captured in the NRF survey.
ShopperTrak estimates retail sales rose 1.1 percent for the week ending December 12 compared with last year, while sales jumped 18.2 percent compared with the prior week.
"We expected to see a retail sales surge last week as some Chanukah spending took place and smart retailers pushed various sales and promotions as Super Saturday ... approaches," said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, in a statement.
Super Saturday usually ranks just behind "Black Friday," the day after U.S. Thanksgiving, as the single-largest holiday sales day. ShopperTrak expects the full Super Saturday weekend to ring up the highest sales for any weekend this holiday season.
Retailers are now preparing to introduce new price cuts and promotions to lure last-minute shoppers.
This weekend, U.S. Wal-Mart Stores Inc will begin selling certain toys for $8 each, including Mattel Inc Barbie Fashionista Dolls and a Hasbro Inc Nerf-n-Force Sword. Throughout the holiday season, Walmart had been emphasizing its offering of $10 toys.
In a bid to win shoppers seeking to get their hands on Zhu Zhu toy hamsters -- one of the hottest toys of the holiday season -- Walmart is flying hundreds of thousands of the robotic hamsters to stores across the country.
The NRF survey found that 11.9 percent of shoppers said they would buy their last gift on December 24, while 35 percent said they planned to finish their list by December 19.
The survey polled 9,929 consumers and was conducted for NRF by BIGresearch December 1 through December 9. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.0 percent.
Reporting by Nicole Maestri; editing by Michele Gershberg and Andre Grenon