Americans finally began shopping seriously this weekend, cramming the nation's stores and malls with Christmas only days away.

Enticing many consumers were big discounts - up to 70 percent off in some stores - which merchants used to draw the crowds after a slow start to the holiday shopping season.Retailers are hoping the last-minute buying, expected to continue through Christmas Eve, will give them respectable holiday sales.

"Many stores got what they were wishing for this weekend. They were very crowded," Ken Volk, marketing director for mall developer Simon DeBartolo Group, said Sunday.

Lines formed early at Sears, J.C. Penney and Macy's stores, with value-conscious shoppers taking advantage of the extra savings offered only during the morning.

Racks of discounted merchandise attracted shoppers to Bloomingdale's, the Gap and Kmart.

"I'm looking for sales because I'm laid off," said Suzanne Schott, shopping at the Jefferson Mall in Louisville, Ky. "You'd like to spend five times as much, but I can't."

Like Schott, many shoppers have watched their spending this Christmas. Despite high consumer confidence and low inflation, many shoppers haven't spent freely and only bought when offered discounts.

That's left many retailers with less-than-stellar sales during the holidays, when many stores hope to do as much as 50 percent of their annual business.

"I see people being real picky with their money," said Don Johnson, store manager at Privilege, a women's clothing store at the Glendale Galleria in Glendale, Calif.

In a last-ditch effort to boost sales, many stores slashed prices over the final week. Price cuts inevitably hurt retailers' profit margins, and there is no guarantee that markdowns will generate enough sales to save the season.

Last year, 41 percent of all holiday shopping was done in the final eight days of the season, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group.

At the Miami International Mall, Diane

Cubena said she would not buy anything that wasn't 25 to 50 percent off.

Tina David brought coupons and sale ads with her during a trip to a Louisville toy store."Sticking to a budget is the key," she said. "That way we won't have those after-holiday woes. We can sit back and see our children with smiley faces and still have money in our pocket."

While there was no Tickle Me Elmo mania like last Christmas, Sing & Snore Ernie did sell out at many stores. Other hot hits include Bop It, Star Wars action figures, Barbie, virtual pets and video games - especially Nintendo's new Diddy Kong Racing.

Jewelry, fragrances and home furnishings were also big sellers this weekend, along with computer software and compact discs.

Clothing stores continued to struggle, as they have all season. Some of the biggest price cuts came at stores such as Ann Taylor and The Limited, which haven't been able to excite shoppers with their merchandise.

"Apparel stores were dead," said Kurt Barnard, a retail consultant and president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report. "Even with 50 percent off, some stores were still empty."

While many shoppers will cram stores until Dec. 24, some are done with their gift-buying and others are waiting for the discounts offered after Christmas.

"The season doesn't stop on Christmas Eve," said Michael Gould, chairman of Bloomingdale's. "We are looking for big sales the week after Christmas."