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Christmas sales began with a "hiss and a roar" at the beginning of the month, but the spending high was quickly followed by a lull, according to Paymark figures and Dunedin retailers.
Paymark, which processes 75% of New Zealand's electronic transactions, said its figures revealed a three-day spending spree from December 1 to 3.
The number of transactions during the period was up 7.4% to 8.4 million and were worth $435 million, an 8% increase on the same period last year.
However, sales during the following week were more subdued, with national spending between December 1 and 12 up just 4% on last year to $1.6 billion, a lower growth rate than recorded in October and November this year.
In Otago, 1.6 million transactions, worth $83 million were made over the 12 days, a 3% and 2.4% increase respectively on last year.
Waikato had the greatest spending increase, 6.9%, while Marlborough had the worst, -6.5%.
Paymark chief executive officer Simon Tong said the early spend-up and subsequent lull in December sales to date was another indicator the retail landscape remained patchy.
However, patterns similar to this had been seen in the past, with spending coming late in the month.
"If tradition stands, we'll expect to see a final rush in the last two or three days prior to Christmas," he said.
Acquisitions team leader Hugh Spiers said the Dunedin store "certainly had a hiss and a roar" in early December before sales plateaued.
Spending usually came in waves at this time of the year, with people rushing to get gifts in the post for overseas relatives, followed later by last-minute buyers, he said.
However, sales had "kicked in again now" and he expected them to increase further closer to Christmas, with many customers saying they had not started their shopping yet.
Arthur Barnett general manager Sue Smaill agreed.
The department store had been consistently busy but she had come across a range of people saying they had not started shopping, and others saying they had finished.
She believed customers were in a different mind-set, because they had two full weeks of shopping available to them before Christmas, and she expected the next 10 days to be the busiest.
Macklins manager Peter Dagg said the build-up to Christmas had been "slow" but the last few days had been "encouraging".
"I think people are buying smaller gifts [and] generally people are spending less."
This tighter spending is reflected in the amount of donations the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal has received so far this year.
Gifts given to the appeal, which supports the Salvation Army, are down 38% in Dunedin and 10% nationally, compared with the same time last year.
Just 7610 gifts have been given so far, well short of the campaign's target of 30,000.
Kmart's New Zealand manager, Sue Smith, encouraged people to help make another's Christmas a happy one.