NEW YORK (AP) Retailers opened earlier than ever Wednesday and slashed prices with hopes of salvaging a holiday season that is falling short of already modest expectations, according to the latest data released Wednesday.

The International Council of Shopping Centers said that same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year during the November-December period, appear to be coming in just below meager projections, though it said that a post-Christmas buying could help restore the shortfall. That contrasts to a more upbeat assessment from its chief economist Michael P. Niemira, following the weekend's spending surge, who predicted that holiday sales could at least meet forecasts.

Retailers hope that post-Christmas bargain hunters and gift-card splurgers will provide a much needed boost during this crucial period.

Target Corp. warned late Monday that its same-store sales might decline for December, while a broad gauge of consumer spending released by Mastercard Inc., which includes estimates for spending by check and cash, reported on Tuesday an increase of 3.6 percent from Thanksgiving to Christmas, compared with a 6.6 percent gain in the year-ago period. Excluding gasoline and auto sales, that figure was a slim 2.4 percent gain.

Retailers' woes mean some bargains for shoppers. Toys "R Us Inc., which threw open its doors at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, two hours earlier than last year, is offering 40 percent price cuts on all MP3 and iPod accessories. Macy's Inc. is offering 50 percent to 75 percent off cashmere sweaters, while Saks Fifth Ave. cut prices on fur coats by 40 percent to 60 percent.

In Lisbon, Conn., Maggie Challinor joined about 20 shoppers huddled for warmth in the vestibule of Kohl's department store for a 6 a.m. opening. Challinor, of Norwich, Conn., planned to buy a coat with a Christmas gift card she received from her husband.

Gift cards helped the family keep to their Christmas budget, she said. "We spent less. We really watched for sales."

Manager Joe St. Rock said his Kohl's store sold about $500,000 in gift cards in December, and many would be redeemed in the next two or three weeks. He said the store had a good Christmas season, with practical items like clothing the best sellers.

"All the gloom and doom that's been predicted didn't seem to pan out, at least not here at Kohl's in Lisbon, anyway," St. Rock said.

Samantha Williams, with her bundled 7-week-old daughter, arrived early Wednesday to exchange baby clothes. Waking early was better than fighting lines later, she said.

Barbara Gagne of Griswold, Conn., found a 55 blouse marked down to $11, which she bought after returning two pairs of pants.

"I'm going to be shopping now," Gagne said. "I'm here for the bargains."

Shopper Wendell Davis was thinking way ahead, and picking up Christmas decorations for next year at a 70 percent discount.

"I told my wife last night I'm going to get up and I'm going to go down to the store," he said. "I've never done this before."

Meanwhile, Susan Depetris was loading pants and sweaters into her car outside of Kohl's in Medford, Mass., but didn't plan on looking for gifts for anyone else. She had just one person on her mind while she shopped herself.

"My son gave me gift cards for clothes, and I get up with the birds, so I figured I'd get the most with my money." she said.

Joe LaPorte, also at Kohl's, searched for a leather jacket on a rack with markdowns from $300 to $119.95.

"I figured come early, beat the rush," he said.

The post-Christmas season has become more important with the increasing popularity of gift cards. Gift card sales are only recorded on retailers' balance sheet when cards are redeemed.

According to the National Retail Federation, consumers were expected to spend a total of $26.3 billion in gift cards this holiday season, up 42 percent from $18.5 billion in 2005.

ShopperTrak RCT Corp. said that the week after Christmas accounts for about 16 percent of total holiday sales.

"This is going to be a more important chunk of business than most people realize," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman at NRF.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research firm, agreed, noting that when the industry looks at the holiday results, they need to include January business.

"When we take a look at the results of this holiday retail season, it will be important to remember that the rules have changed and so should the way we read the success of the holiday," Cohen said.

Associated Press Writers Susan Haigh, in Lisbon, Conn., and Melissa Trujillo, in Boston, contributed to this report.

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