Shoppers headed to the nation's malls and stores to grab post-holiday bargains Sunday as merchants slashed prices even deeper in hopes of squeezing more sales out of what's winding up to be an unimpressive holiday season.

After struggling with disappointing sales throughout the holiday season, retailers were heartened by an uptick in sales this past week, but they are still relying on shoppers to do more buying — and less returning — in the week after Christmas to meet their sales goals. They also hope customers will quickly use their holiday gift cards, which are recorded as sales only when they are redeemed.

The only few bright spots have been online shopping, with sales at the high end of projections, and luxury stores, which have continued with robust sales from their well-heeled customers, who have benefited from the economy's recovery.

Shoppers showed up early Sunday at stores and malls.

About 400 people endured the cold and snowy roads to shop at Kaufmann's at Polaris Fashion Place in Columbus, Ohio.

The early bargain-hunters were treated to 50 to 60 percent off everything from coats to shoes to gold jewelry. Many also came in the door with a newspaper coupon offering $10 off if they spent more than $25.

Amy Glorioso, 36, of Westerville, Ohio, arrived at about 6:30 a.m. with her mother, Mary Bahl, of Mansfield,Ohio, who came to visit for Christmas and stayed over to shop, she said.

"This is my day of shopping," Glorioso said.

"Every year we're out of the house by 6 a.m.," Bahl said.

They said they bought ornaments, wrapping paper and Christmas cards. "You start the day after," Glorioso said with a chuckle.

Tomi and Ira Campbell of Columbus arrived at Kaufmann's at about 6:30 a.m., with their 3-year-old son, Ira Campbell III, and an ad with a circled listing for cashmere sweaters discounted to $29.99.

"You can't beat that. I've watched the cashmere sweaters for months," she said. "I got two cashmeres for less than the price of one."

Also at Kaufmann's was Bobbie Stewart, 41, of Worthington, Ohio, who had to get her car so she could drive around to pick up all the pots, pans and dishes that she purchased. "It was just too much for me to carry," she said.

Merchants are finding themselves in the same position they were in last year, relying on the final days before and post-holiday sales to save the season. Last year, a late spending surge gave struggling retailers a better-than-expected holiday season, delivering solid gains over the year-ago period. In 2002, however, the last-minute boost before and after Christmas was not sufficient to overcome December's earlier weakness.

"Last-minute shoppers have decided the holiday season for retailers," said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. The industry association is sticking with its forecast of a 4.5 percent gain in total sales for November and December. That excludes restaurant and auto sales.

"It won't be the best holiday season on record but it won't be the worst," she added.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. on Sunday took an additional 20 percent off its already reduced apparel for up to 60 percent savings. In addition, all televisions and home theater systems were on sale, and there was 50 percent off of all toys and 50 to 75 percent of all Christmas shop items.

Lord & Taylor offered 50 to 70 percent discounts on men's and women's suits, and cashmere sweaters, while Macy's offered to 75 percent savings throughout the store.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, the seven-day period ended Dec. 27 accounted for 20.6 percent of holiday sales in 2003, up from 19.6 percent in 2002. The seven-day period ended Jan. 3 accounted for 14.1 percent in 2003, up from 12.8 percent in 2002.