Besides those changes, "we tried to find more unique items than in the past," some developed specifically for sale at Penney, such as a cordless hand vacuum that looks like a cow, Feiwus said.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to offer deals the day after Thanksgiving on several big-ticket items. It did so last year on televisions and DVD players, said Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman.
"There are a lot of places folks can shop," Weber said. "We try to keep merchandise in stock and be the best value in town."
Others are counting on a strategy of constantly turning over merchandise to keep customers loyal, especially during the holiday season. That strategy has worked this year for Chico's, a women's apparel retailer with 375 stores nationwide, where same-store sales last month were 18 percent higher last month than in October last year.
"A lot of product hits the floor that's new every month, and we follow it up with marketing," said Jim Frain, vice president of marketing. "When you retrench and don't take chances on new merchandise, you're obviously not going to have fresh new looks for the customer, and they're not going to come in and buy them. If you sell a rehash of the prior year, you'll have a lot less luck getting the customer in to buy."
Experts expect bargains will be out there for the holiday season, but in a more targeted way than in years past.
"If anything, retailers have been too conservative, and inventories are very lean," Steidtmann said. "The leanness of inventory suggests a little less promotional activity than in the past - it will take longer to make markdowns. The primary reason you do unplanned markdowns is too much inventory, and that's not going to be the case."
For the first time this season, technology has become sophisticated enough that retailers will be able to mark down prices more selectively. Rather than taking markdowns chainwide, retailers can target promotions on particular products to particular geographic areas.
"The difference this year is there will be more-thoughtful marketing based on planning and much less of categorywide and storewide total price reduction," said Tom Holliday, president of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of the NRF.
Last year, he said, retailers' margins were hurt by a more panicked approach, "launching the season with everything we have. This year you won't see that among the major players. It will be more category by category, item by item."
Some retailers said they'll be able to gauge their performance only later in the season.
"If the season does come, it will be late compared to most," said Feiwus, "The confidence index is low, and most consumers, particularly those that are value-oriented, will wait until the end to see what the best values are."