Christmas is already shaping up to be a struggle for the nation’s retailers.

It isn’t even fall yet, but the first forecasts of the all-important year-end period are out, and they’re pointing to more muted gains than last year. Shoppers are expected to make fewer trips to stores and, when they do show up, to head straight for bargains they’ve researched in advance.

Retailers, meanwhile, have been working down inventory where possible, hoping to avoid the markdowns that eat into their profit margins. The result is likely to be a tense standoff over prices at a time when persistently high unemployment and costly necessities like gasoline are sapping the enthusiasm of a broad swath of shoppers.

ShopperTrak, which counts foot traffic at malls and blends it with economic data to predict trends, says in a new forecast that national retail sales will rise by just 3% during November and December, less than last year’s 4.1% gain, essentially just keeping up with inflation. The International Council of Shopping Centers is also forecasting a slower 3% increase in sales for November and December.

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