December is here, but many shoppers still consider this an "early" time to begin holiday shopping.

Take, for example, Jennifer Berg of Livermore, who was browsing in Pleasanton's Stoneridge mall recently.

"I'm just kind of starting," she said. "It's earlier than I've ever started before."

Berg said she skips the mad post-Thanksgiving shopping rush and is now looking for bargains and calm afternoons when she can leave her children with a sitter and hit the mall.

"You have that initial burst around Black Friday and then it slows down," said Ed Fox, a professor of marketing and director of the JCPenney Center for Retail Excellence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Increasingly, you're going to see crowds ramp up in two weeks before Christmas. But it's going to be like flicking on a switch."

A survey of retailers by the International Council of Shopping Centers and UBS Securities reported Tuesday that chain store sales fell by 2 percent for the week ended Dec. 1 compared with the previous week.

Michael Niemara, the council's chief economist, called those results "a mixed bag." Weekly sales have cooled lately, but they are 3.1 percent higher than the same period last year and grew by 2.5 percent during November, he said, compared with the same month in 2006.

"Consumers are not totally focused on holiday shopping," Niemara said. "Consumers are behind the curve compared with prior year shopping. ... This is the holiday lull and it is an opportunity for those that prefer a less-crowded environment.


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That goes for shoppers like Keith Ranoa of Fremont, who strolled through Stoneridge on a recent weekday afternoon looking for items that grabbed his attention.

"I've done a little of holiday shopping," he said. "I use my memory to pick out gifts. If a person has mentioned something they wanted, I'll look at the price and see if it's worth it."

There are a few factors influencing the lag this year, including an extra day between Thanksgiving and Christmas and a lack of an obvious "hot item."

In other years, consumers trampled over one another to get Tickle Me Elmos and PlayStation 2s, but no single product stands out this year, experts said.

Items such as "Guitar Hero," an interactive music video game, are popular, Fox said, but aren't on everyone's wish list.

Internet retailer Amazon.com said its top-selling items include the Kindle, a wireless reading device; Canon digital cameras; portable GPS navigators; and Apple iPods.

As for books, "I Am America (And So Can You!)" by Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's mock news program "The Colbert Report," sits among the top sellers and has been popular with Barnes & Noble shoppers.

So far, retailers have tried to create buzz with big discounts to kick off the season and might have to keep such deals going.

"Retailers started discounting earlier and deeper to get consumers to move faster and not to wait right before Christmas," Southern Methodist's Fox said. "Inventories were high and retailers needed to make sure they sold through a lot of it before the holiday."

This shopping season could be categorized as a "buyer's market," but analysts predict many consumers will be cautious about spending on gifts when concerns about rising costs of food, gas and housing continue to mount.

"I don't think retailers can expect to hold back" on discounts, said Stephen Hoch, professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Management and director of the Baker Retailing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. "Retailers are going to do everything they possibly can to push stuff out the door because it's even harder to get rid of it later."

Blanca Torres covers retail and consumer issues. Reach her at 925-943-8263 or btorres@bayareanewsgroup.com . Read her blog, Shop Talk, atwww.ibabuzz.com/shoptalk/.

Editor's Note: The Holiday Shopper brings you a weekly update featuring major retail news and tidbits related to the holiday shopping season. Feel free to send your shopping updates to reporter Blanca Torres at btorres@bayareanewsgroup.com or by calling 925-943-8263. Remember to frequently check the Shop Talk blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/shoptalk/.