Shoppers were playing it safe on Friday as Christmas approached, stocking up on practical gifts and paying cash for them.

"My husband is a homebuilder. It's rough," said Robin Smith of Awendaw.

She used her debit card at Bed, Bath & Beyond at Mount Pleasant Towne Centre to buy gifts totaling about $350.

"I'm probably spending about the same, but I feel like I shouldn't be. We're nervous. Everybody is hurting right now," she said.

In an effort to shake loose more dollars from worried consumers, retailers are pushing discounts and other gimmicks for the last weekend before Christmas. Research firm ShopperTrak predicts today will be the second- or third-busiest shopping day of the year, The Associated Press reported.

So far, retail holiday spending is up about 2 percent over last year, said Dr. Marianne Bickle, chairwoman of the department of retailing at the University of South Carolina. "I think it will remain that way until Christmas."

Coupons offered in newspapers and magazines are "really big right now," Bickle said. "Consumers can really get some good deals right now. It's a win-win situation."

Shoppers respond best to "tangible things," such as coupons, free samples and a good experience in the store that leads to word-of-mouth advertising. They are spending but not extravagantly, and they are paying cash, Bickle said.

"It's responsible buying, so they're not getting themselves in trouble," Bickle said.

Allyson Moe of Mount Pleasant purchased functional, discounted presents for her family. "Our gifts aren't going to be so extravagant," she said.

Her husband, a physician, is receiving an air compressor. They will buy clothes and gift cards for the kids.

At Towne Centre, the parking lot was crowded Friday, but several shoppers there said they were buying at discount on the Internet because of free shipping. The precarious state of the economy was the main factor cited by shoppers when it came to spending.

"A lot less because of the recession," said Ashton Glasgow.

Vicki McGillivray, a retired Medical University research administrator, said she is spending about the same as last year on practical gifts, and she is paying cash for them. Her cart included a Cuisinart and pillows.

"I haven't seen many bargains," she said.

Some people still are paying off their 2009 holiday bills as they head into the final week of the Christmas shopping season, according to Family Services Inc. of North Charleston.

"We're living in tough economic times, and no one should be spending money they don't have. Being financially responsible this holiday season is a gift to yourself and to those you care about," said Michaele Pena, the agency director of consumer credit counseling services.

Citadel and Northwoods malls are opening as early as 7 a.m. and staying open as late as 10 p.m. to draw shoppers.

"Extending our hours during the busiest shopping season of the year is critical," said Sam Billingsley, general manager of both malls. "Our goal is to be as accommodating as possible of everyone's hectic schedules. Longer hours keep the crowds manageable, and that ensures a positive shopping experience for our customers," he said in a prepared statement.

Department store and restaurant hours may vary from the extended mall hours. Mall holiday hours are listed at citadelmall.net and shopnorthwoodsmall.com.

Shopping incentives planned for this weekend include Wal-Mart offering a variety of toys, home goods and electronics at discount. Deals include Cepia LLC's Kung Zhu Hamster for $15; a 32-inch Samsung LCD high-definition TV, including a $50 Walmart gift card, for $348; and up to 50 percent off on selected cookware, the AP reported.

At J.C. Penney, hair styling and finishing products will be 50 percent off; blankets and throws, 60 percent off; and gold and sterling jewelry, 70 percent off. The discounts apply 6 a.m.-1 p.m. today.

At Toys R Us, the deals include Yamaha 61-key keyboards for $99 ($100 off) and the Fisher-Price Imaginext Motorized Dinosaur for $12.50 (50 percent off). The store is open today 6 a.m.-1 a.m. On Sunday, when Toys R Us stores are open 6 a.m.-midnight, the chain will offer $50 gift cards with the purchase of a black or white Nintendo Wii game system and Wii Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games; and 25 percent off Schwinn bikes, the AP reported.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.