Target, Macy's and other retailers offered holiday discounts in early November and opened stores on Thanksgiving Day. It was an effort to attract shoppers before Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that traditionally kicks off the holiday shopping season.
Those tactics drew bigger crowds during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, but failed to motivate Americans to spend.
"The economy spoke loud and clear over the past few days," said Brian Sozzi, CEO and chief equities strategist at Belus Capital Advisors. "We are going to see an increase in markdowns."
A record 141 million people were expected to shop in stores and online over the four-day period that ended on Sunday, up from last year's 137 million, according to the results of a survey of nearly 4,500 shoppers conducted for The National Retail Federation.
But total spending was expected to fall for the first time ever since the trade group began tracking it in 2006, according to the survey that was released on Sunday afternoon. Over the four days, spending fell an estimated 2.9 percent to $57.4 billion.
Shoppers, on average, were expected to spend $407.02 during the four days, down 3.9 percent from last year. That would be the first decline since the 2009 holiday shopping season when the economy was just coming out of the recession.
The survey underscores the challenges stores have faced since the recession began in late 2007. Retailers had to offer deeper discounts to get people to shop during the downturn, but Americans still expect those "70 percent off" signs now during the recovery.
And stores may have only exacerbated that expectation this year. By offering bargains earlier in the season, it seems they've created a vicious cycle in which they'll need to constantly offer bigger sales. Shoppers who took advantage of "holiday" deals before Thanksgiving may have deal fatigue and are cautious about buying anything else unless it's heavily discounted.
Matthew Shay, president and CEO of The National Retail Federation, said that the survey results only represent one weekend in what is typically the biggest shopping period of the year. The combined months of November and December can account for up to 40 percent of retailers' revenue.
Overall, Shay said the trade group still expects sales for the combined two months to increase 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion. That's higher than the 3.5 percent pace in the previous year.
But to achieve that growth, retailers will likely have to offer big sales events. In a stronger economy, people who shopped early would continue to do so throughout the season. But analysts say that's not likely to be the case in this still tough economic climate.
"It's pretty clear that in the current environment, customers expect promotions," Shay said. "Absent promotions, they're not really spending."
Take Tuesday Trasvina, 37, who said she's been bombarded with holiday discounts since early November. Trasvina, a marketing coordinator, plans to spend $500 on holiday gifts, about a quarter of what she spent last year.
"They've been stretching out this Black Friday thing so long," said Trasvina, who was shopping with her husband on Friday at a Target store in Portland, Ore. "I just think the over-commercialization of the holiday has gotten to us."
At least a dozen major retailers - most of them for the first time - opened on Thanksgiving instead of on Black Friday, which is typically the biggest shopping day of the year. Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and other retailers said on Friday that Thanksgiving crowds were strong.
But the early start appeared to pull sales forward. Black Friday sales fell 13.2 percent from the previous year to $9.74 billion, according to Chicago-based technology firm ShopperTrak. But combined spending over Thanksgiving and Black Friday rose 2.3 percent to $12.3 billion compared with a year ago.
A Kmart store in New York City that opened at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving and stayed open for 41 hour straight was packed on the holiday. Clothing was marked down 30 percent to 50 percent.
Adriana Tavaraz, 51, headed there at about 4 p.m. and spent $105 on ornaments, Santa hats and other holiday decor. She saved about 50 percent.
But it's not likely Tavaraz will be back in stores too many more times this season. Money is tight this year because of rising costs for food and rent, and Tavaraz already spent much of her $200 holiday budget.
"Nowadays, you have to think about what you spend," she said. "You have to think about tomorrow."
Sara Sell in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.