The two women leaving the Kandi Mall in Willmar last Saturday afternoon were laden down with three shopping bags apiece.
"I worked up a sweat," one of them remarked as they headed for their car in the crowded parking lot next to the J.C. Penney store.
Inside the mall, the concourses were busy with shoppers.
Local retailers are crossing their fingers that consumers will be willing to spend more freely as the holiday shopping season arrives.
"Everybody's looking to stretch their dollars a little further during these tough economic times, but we're optimistic," said Gordy Lindblad of Herberger's department store in Willmar.
The year's biggest season for retailers usually doesn't start until Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year. But this year it's being cranked up early with sale prices, special offers and extended hours, all in hopes of luring shoppers into the stores.
At Sears, shoppers could start taking advantage last weekend already of Black Friday discounts and no-interest deals. Some stores are cutting some of their prices by up to 50 percent.
Wal-Mart's corporate office announced this past week that starting today,prices will be temporarily lowered by up to 60 percent on some of the most popular children's toys and video games.
Even caterers and food suppliers are beginning to promote the holiday party season.
The big question: Will it be enough to encourage people to loosen their grip on their wallets?
Early signs leave many local retailers feeling hopeful.
Herberger's annual Community Day sale last Saturday was "very successful," Lindblad said. "We feel that is going to set the tone."
At J.C. Penney, customers have been eager to take advantage of coupons, said store manager Roger Thorson.
"I've seen a lot of customers with their Christmas list. We've seen a lot of people earlier than ever," he said. "We're optimistic for the holiday season. We're obviously going to cut prices a little more drastically than in the past."
The most recent statistics from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Develop indicate the state's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell slightly in September, from 8 percent to 7.3 percent.
Minnesota is faring better than the nation as a whole. The U.S. unemployment rate in September, the most recent month for which figures are available, was 9.8 percent.
But as the holiday season approaches, substantially more Minnesotans are jobless than they were a year ago. The state had lost more than 124,000 jobs since the beginning of the year, the highest rate of job loss in more than 50 years.
Across the state, home foreclosures also have doubled in the past year.
At Ken's Casuals in downtown Willmar, the Christmas garlands are out and the racks are filled with new merchandise.
Owner Pam Klein isn't sure, however, whether the early shopping rush is a signal that consumers feel more confident or whether they're using the sale prices as an opportunity to catch up on delayed purchasing of necessities.
"Typically by this time I have wrapped many, many Christmas gifts. But so far this year, people are a little slower to get started," she said.
One of the trends she has noticed: consumers who have spent little money this year and who now need to replace part of their wardrobe.
"They're filling in the blanks where they maybe haven't purchased for awhile," she said.
For many retailers, a cold October helped by creating a sales boost in seasonal items such as winter clothing and children's boots.
Overall, fall sales have been "better than we anticipated at the beginning of the year," Thorson said.
Klein guesses that holiday retail activity will likely end up close to what it was last year.
"Certainly not the best Christmas ever but it could have been a lot worse," she said. "I don't know if the public is ready for it, but we're ready."