Debbie Reeves and Sue Evans awakened early Thursday to start their annual tradition: A day of after-Christmas retail therapy for the Moncks Corner sisters-in-law.

Tips on returns

Confirm a store's return policy in advance, such the deadline for bringing back holiday purchases for credit.

Find out beforehand whether you can return to a brick-and-mortar store a gift purchased online. Some retailers allow it; others don't.

Bring a receipt, packing slip or some proof of purchase to speed up the process.

Return gifts in the original packaging.

Source: Cox Newspapers

The venture included a morning stop at Home Depot for a Martha Stewart brand Christmas tree, and later, an afternoon trip to several stores in Northwoods Mall.

"I'm buying gifts for me," said Reeves moments after she and Evans exited the mall's J.C. Penney with shopping bags in tow.

The two were flanked by throngs of other post-holiday shoppers at the North Charleston mall, armed with presents to return and an eye for a good sale as merchants touted deep discounts.

Northwoods Mall officials Thursday afternoon said that the foot traffic at the mall was "usual" for the post-Christmas shopping season. That included a dearth of available parking spaces at some parts of the mall's lot, forcing some motorists to make their own spaces on the grass.

The day after Christmas has increasingly been dubbed a key piece in the overall holiday shopping season.

Merchants are looking to dump the last of their holiday inventory. That includes enticing shoppers - some armed with returns and some gift cards received as presents - with jaw-dropping discounts.

"I think it's going to be huge shopping for the next week between Christmas and New Year's," said Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail analyst. "There is a lot of product still in stores, and it's not just irregular and extreme sizes like extra small."

Thursday's deep discounts mirrored some sales touted in the pre-Christmas time as merchants were already touting discounts as high as 75 percent, hoping to still squeeze profits from reluctant holiday shoppers.

"What surprised me is that even before Christmas the sales on some items were amazing," Green said. "I mean Abercrombie & Fitch was giving 50 percent off all the items in the store for the last week before Christmas, and that is rare to see a blanket deep discount like that."

Sales at U.S. stores dropped 3.1 percent to $42.7 billion for the week that ended on Sunday compared with the same week last year, according to ShopperTrak, which tracks data at 40,000 locations. That follows a decline of 2.9 percent and 0.8 percent during the first and second weeks of the month, respectively.

Stores had a problem even getting Americans into stores, let alone getting them to spend. The number of shoppers fell 21.2 percent during the week that ended on Sunday, according to ShopperTrak.

The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail group, has predicted that overall sales, both in stores and online, will rise 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion this holiday shopping season.

Updated sales figures were not released Thursday.

Green said Thursday that sales are predicted to be lackluster for many merchants.

"I would say that what happened is that retailers planned for an OK season with 3 to 5 percent increase and it's flat at best," Green said. "There is a lot merchandise remaining when they planned to have little of that left."

Such a situation was lauded by many shoppers like Darielle High.

The 21-year-old resident of Eutawville was at Northwoods Mall on Thursday afternoon to exchange a purse and make some purchases.

"I was surprised that they were having such big sales," she said.

High said she was going to keep shopping through the day, even pick up a few Christmas gifts she didn't plan to buy until after the holiday.

"It's better to shop today," she said. "Black Friday is way more hectic. I came here actually this past Black Friday and it was jammed packed and I couldn't find a place to park."

High said the mood on Thursday was much easier than trying to buy gifts during the pre-Christmas season.

"Today is easier and calmer. There's nobody rushing you and not bumping into you," she said. "People are shopping, but my return line was longer than the checkout line."

Green said consumers like High are those who stand to win this year's holiday shopping season since merchants will have to clear shelves for more inventory to come for the spring season.

"They want to get rid of it," Green said of the holiday merchandise. "They want to get Christmas over with. It wasn't something that was very positive for them, so they say 'lets move on. ' "

The situation spelled for a bittersweet shopping trip for sisters-in-law Reeves and Evans.

Evans managed to get the best deal of the two: using her gift card to buy a leather purse at Dillard's, which was discounted by 50 percent.

"I could never buy stuff like this, I feel guilty if I pay it at full price," she said. Reeves said she also purchased some items from Dillard's but didn't have such success at Home Depot.

Reeves was planning to buy a Martha Stewart Christmas tree with LED lights and other pageantry.

Her trip to the store, however, resulted in only an empty shelf.

"I held off for a tree hoping it would be 50 percent off," she said. "Problem was, it was gone when we got there."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 or