On the last day of shopping before Christmas, Cornell Lewis had an armful of bags packed with leather boots, watches and a remote-controlled helicopter set — mostly gifts for his nieces and nephews.
But Lewis, 44, didn't get these gifts at a mall, like many shoppers on Christmas Eve. Indeed, he went to a place without sprawling malls — downtown Los Angeles. There, he joined throngs of lively gift-givers going shop to shop in Chinatown and the toy district.
"You can get the same items here for half the price," said Lewis, a retail manager who lives in Hollywood.
Well, maybe not quite the same items. At these venues, knockoffs are plentiful.
"It might not be name-brand merchandise," Lewis said, "but it'll do."
Art and Monica Gonzalez were in Chinatown to buy gifts for their six children and extended family. The couple from Compton said they were sick of fighting swarms of buyers at malls.
"At this time of year, we try to avoid the mall at all costs," Monica Gonzalez, 33, said. "Between the crowds and parking, it's just too much."
They were on a mission to find skinny jeans for their 10-year-old daughter, among a list of other items.
"They have a little bit of everything here in Chinatown," Art Gonzalez, 40, said. "It's worth the half-hour drive."
No matter where shoppers were Friday, they contributed to a strong finish for the retail season, according to analysts and others who work in the field.
"You saw joy back in the holiday season," said Sherif Mityas of the A.T. Kearney management consultant firm.
The National Retail Federation predicted that holiday spending will reach $451.5 billion this year, up 3.3% over last year.
That would be the biggest increase since 2006, and the largest total since a record $452.8 billion in 2007. A strong week after Christmas could make this shopping season the biggest of all time.
The economy hasn't drastically improved from last year. Unemployment in the U.S. is 9.9%, credit remains tight and the housing market is moribund. But recent economic reports suggest employers are laying off fewer workers and businesses are ordering more computers and appliances. Shoppers are spending with more confidence.
"I was unemployed last year, so I'm feeling better," said Hope Jackson, who was in a more traditional shopping setting — Maryland's Mall in Columbia, Md., on Friday morning. Jackson bought laptops and PlayStation games for her three daughters earlier in the season but was at the mall on Christmas Eve to grab $50 shirts marked down to $12 at Aeropostale.
Much of the spending growth has been online, driven by more free shipping offers and convenience. So far this year, $36.4 billion has been spent online, according to MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse.
Some shopping habits learned from the recession lingered. Shoppers hunted for deals, a trend that doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
That's what brought Jade Ervin, 16, and Oscar Garcia, 17, to downtown L.A. They wanted to buy each other Christmas presents.
"I might be a procrastinator for waiting this long," Ervin said. "But I'm not about to spend crazy amounts of money."
Associated Press was used in compiling this report