Consumers were more likely to buy but more cautious about how much they spent last week as the number of shopping days before Christmas dwindled.

Data from the International Council of Shopping Centers indicated a drop-off in retail sales at chain stores in the week ended Dec. 8 versus the prior week. ICSC and its research partner, Goldman Sachs, reported that sales dropped 0.7 percent versus the week ended Dec. 1, which included Cyber Monday, while rising 2.5 percent from the comparable 2011 week.

The 2.5 percent increase matched the one for the week ended Nov. 17, but fell short of the 3.2 and 4 percent gains, on a year-over-year basis, recorded during the weeks ended Dec. 1 and Nov. 24, respectively. Business was brisk at apparel specialty stores and wholesale clubs while weak at discounters, department stores, dollar stores and online vendors, ICSC said.

“Consumers fell behind on their holiday shopping this past week,” commented Michael Niemira, vice president of research and chief economist at ICSC.

ICSC noted that the holiday shopping completion rate, at 55.5 percent at this time a year ago, had slipped to 51 percent, prompting some optimism about the weeks ahead. “With two weeks left to shop before Christmas Day, consumers are likely to step up the pace of their shopping appreciably as procrastination is less and less an option,” Niemira commented.

ICSC continues to expect a 4 to 4.5 percent increase in retail sales this month, meaning that the group’s forecast of 3 percent growth for November and December remains on track.

With Cyber Monday and the days that followed now history for retailers, the conversion rate at brick-and-mortar stores last week rose to 65.3 percent from 62.9 percent in the week ended Dec. 1. The share of buying visits attributable to online shopping in the U.S. fell to 21 percent from 23.6 percent during the week including Cyber Monday, according to The NPD Group’s weekly report on holiday shopping.

The NPD data on online buying doesn’t take into account units sold or dollars transacted.

Fifty-six percent of U.S. consumers shopped last week, NPD noted, down from 58 percent in the prior week.

“As expected, consumers are catching their breath and spending less, with their focus changing to purchasing gifts for those on their list rather than themselves,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD. “Look for spending to shift into high gear as we approach the countdown to Christmas.”

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