NEW YORK — Ticktock. Ticktock. Time waits for no man — especially procrastinat-ing holiday shoppers. All around the country, cash registers buzzed at department stores and specialty boutiques as hordes of people braved seemingly eternal lines to buy their loved ones that perfect gift.

Is the retail landscape really all good cheer, though? Not quite. Christmas 2002 will go down as a dogfight for business, with steep and steady markdowns, "private" sales that actually were open to anyone, and stores barely making their plans — even the great Wal-Mart. Some companies even advertised post-Christmas price cuts practically a week before Santa arrives. Industry-wide, sportswear sales, with the exception of contemporary areas, have been disappointing.

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