A string of retailers released disappointing sales figures yesterday, as the holiday shopping season entered its home stretch. Although by one measure shoppers spent more than $7.2 billion on Saturday, making it the biggest day of the year, retailers remained gloomy.

Federated Department Stores, owner of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, said sales through Saturday "did not strengthen as much as anticipated" at stores open more than a year.

Kmart Corp., the discount chain that filed for bankruptcy protection in January, told reporters that sales in the past two weeks were "softer" than it expected.

Wal-Mart Corp., the world's largest retailer, said sales at stores open more than a year were at the lower end of the 3 to 5 percent increase projected for the week ended Friday. However, company spokesman Tom Williams said adding Saturday's results could make "a big difference."

Retailers often low-ball their holiday sales projections, analysts said. In four of the last five years, they have forecast lackluster performance during the holidays only to pull through at the end with help from last-minute shoppers or after-Christmas bargain hunters.

"It's one thing to keep expectations low and exceed them. But if high expectations don't turn out, that's when you can get in trouble," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research.

This year may be no different. As far back as September, retailers warned about a weak holiday selling environment.

Still, consulting firm ShopperTrak RCT found that last-minute shoppers spent $7.2 billion on Saturday, even better than the day after Thanksgiving. They spent $12.6 billion for the weekend. "Last-minute shoppers gave the holiday retail season a much needed lift," ShopperTrak said in a statement yesterday after crunching sales numbers from major chains.

Retailers are hoping record sales of gift cards will bring shoppers to stores after Christmas where they could spend a little extra money while they're redeeming their cards.

"There might be life in the days after Christmas," said Mike Niemira, a New York-based analyst for the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.

Because the stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the shortest it has been in five years, people are "buying much closer to the event," said Wal-Mart's Williams.

Case in point: Christmas tree trimmings. Sales of ornaments and tinsel, which usually fall off by this point, were still going strong Friday at Wal-Mart.

But some analysts said even if shoppers are turning out in stronger numbers as Christmas nears, it may not be enough to make up for November or the weak sales in the first part of this month.

"I predict there will be record number of store closings and bankruptcies after Christmas," said Burt Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group in Stratford, Conn. "There are too many stores chasing after too many shoppers during a short period of time."

A shopper hunts for bargains Monday at the Wal-Mart store in Duarte, Calif. Shopper Dorothy Hardrick leaves the Roseville, Mich., Super Kmart Thursday. Kmart called sales "softer" than expected.