Old Man Winter delivered U.S. retailers the gift of colder weather over the weekend, which helped perk up sales of coats and sweaters and swelled the number of shoppers at malls. 

``The weather on the weekend was certainly helpful,'' said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group. ''The malls were relatively busy, and the discount stores and warehouse clubs were jammed.'' 

Temperatures in the Northeast, South and Midwest turned more seasonable over the weekend and brought some relief to retailers who had seen sales of cold-weather gear stagnate in the warm temperatures. Chicago last week saw a record high of 68 degrees Fahrenheit, 30 degrees above normal for this time of year. 

``Apparel did get a boost from the cold snap,'' said Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman for Taubman Centers Inc., which operates 31 shopping malls in 13 states. 

Although the weather brought a blast of optimism, holiday sales growth continues to be limited as consumers spend less in the U.S. recession. The Labor Department reported last week that the U.S. jobless rate spiked to a six-year high of 5.7 percent in November. 

Nonetheless, Federated Department Stores Inc., which operates Macy's and Bloomingdale's stores, said on Monday its sales during the week ended Saturday were ``strong.'' 

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, reported sales at its discount stores last week met its plan for gains at the low end of a range of 4 percent to 6 percent, and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. said its sales were tracking higher than expected. 

DISCOUNTS, PROMOTIONS DRIVE TRAFFIC 

Retailers have only two weeks left to ring up Christmas holiday sales. Purchases in November and December typically account for about one-quarter of a retailer's annual sales. Discounts and promotions, some deeper and earlier than in past seasons, are the lure of choice this season. 

``People continue to look for bargains,'' Barnard said. ``But unless the bargain being offered bespoke very extraordinary value, the consumer wasn't buying.'' 

This weekend, ``buy one, get one free'' sales were common, as were ``bounce-back'' promotions in which customers receive gift certificates for later use after spending a certain amount. 

For example, youth-oriented apparel seller American Eagle Outfitters Inc. offered a $15 gift certificate for every $75 spent in its stores. 

Mall managers reported long lines at Gap Inc. stores over the weekend. Gap, the largest U.S. apparel chain, had distributed e-mail coupons offering discounts of 30 percent on full-priced merchandise and 15 percent on sale merchandise. 

Coach Inc., which sells expensive handbags, shoes and accessories, typically does not mark down goods in its retail stores. But a Coach coupon circulating on the Internet offers 25 percent off its merchandise through Dec. 16. 

Sales at jewelry stores also gained steam this weekend as the number of shopping days before Christmas dwindled.