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NEW YORK – Many Americans are watching the annual holiday spending ritual from the sidelines this year.

Money is still tight for some. Others are fed up with commercialism of the holidays. Still others are waiting for bigger bargains.

And people like Lark-Marie Anton Menchini are more thoughtful about their purchases. The New York public relations executive says in the past she’d buy her children up to eight Christmas gifts each, but this year they’re getting three apiece. The leftover money is going toward their college savings.

“We told them Santa is ... being very conscious of how many gifts he puts on his sleigh,” Menchini, 36, says.

Despite an improving economy, most workers are not seeing meaningful wage increases. And those who can splurge say the brash commercialism around the holidays – many more stores are opening for business on Thanksgiving – is a turnoff.

But perhaps the biggest factor is that shoppers are less motivated than ever by holiday sales. Since the Great Recession, retailers have been dangling more discounts throughout the year, so Americans have learned to hold out for even deeper holiday savings on clothes, electronics and more. To stay competitive and boost sales, retailers are slashing prices further during their busiest season of the year, which is cutting into their own profit margins.

There aren’t reliable figures on how many people plan to shop during the holidays. But early data points to a shift in holiday spending.

The National Retail Federation estimates that sales during the start to the official start to season – the four-day weekend that began on Thanksgiving Day – dropped 2.9 percent from last year to $57.4 billion. That would mark the first decline in the seven years the trade group has tracked spending.

And during the week afterward – which ended on Sunday – sales fell another 2.9 percent compared with a year ago, according to data tracker ShopperTrak, which did not give dollar amounts. Meanwhile, the number of shoppers in stores plunged nearly 22 percent.

Overall, the retail federation expects spending in November and December to rise 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion. But to get that growth, analysts say retailers will need to discount heavily, which eats away profits.

There are signs that profits for the quarter that includes the holiday season are being hurt by the discounting. Walmart and American Eagle Outfitters are among 47 retailers that have slashed their outlooks for either the quarter or the year.

The recession not only taught Americans to expect bargains. It also showed them that they could make do with less. And in the economic recovery, many have maintained that frugality.

So whereas in a better economy, Americans would make both big and small purchases, in this economy they’re being more thoughtful and making choices about what to buy.

But government figures show that retail sales were up 0.7 percent in November, the biggest gain in five months. But the increase was led by autos, appliances and electronics.