"It was a frenzy," she said, adding she felt special to be invited until she saw the packed parking lot. "Then I didn't feel quite as special."

'Friends and family' coupons

Two Federated chains, Macy's and Bloomingdale's, are giving out a limited number of "friends and family" discount coupons that once were reserved for those with ties to store employees. At Macy's, customers can set aside items and get a 20 percent discount when they return within a few days.

"I'd do this, especially if there's no restrictions," said 21-year old Jennifer Cheng, who was shopping with her mother at the Macy's in the Beverly Center, in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Usually, I just shop on impulse, but with a special set-aside, you can shop and then come back later and get the discount too."

At the mall's Bloomingdale's store, customers who requested a friends and family" coupon were given one entitling them to a 20 percent discount on most merchandise last week.

At Gap Inc.'s Old Navy division, employees will be handing out scratch-off sweepstakes cards, as they did last year. But the discount chain's second holiday promotion, new this year and running next month, requires customers to buy a gift card to have a chance to win.

Old Navy will randomly "Gigant-o-size" 1,000 gift cards when they are redeemed, making them worth 10 times their purchase value, up to $1,000 each. The promotion still is a form of discounting, company officials acknowledged, but it doesn't cost as much in lost profits as widespread price-cutting.

Grabbing shoppers early

Shopping at the Newport Centre mall in Jersey City, N.J., on Satuday, Ryan Stankus noticed how retailers were trying to create business.

"I guess they want people to buy now to generate sales early," the 29-year-old computer programmer said as he stepped out of the Gap.

Stankus had purchased slacks, gloves and a hat for about $127 and, in return, received a Gap "holiday season pass" that allows diminishing discounts as the season progresses: 20 percent off purchases made now, then 15 percent on those made in early December and 10 percent on those made in late December.

Only those who did some shopping on or before Nov. 18 were eligible for the discount card, a perk that Mr. Stankus said would definitely drive him back to Gap later.

Teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc. is offered a coupon, good only through last Saturday, that urged shoppers to buy one of 16 "ultimate gifts."

The coupon gave a 10 percent-to-20 percent discount, depending on the number of items purchased.

It's a reflection of how accustomed shoppers are to the near begging that characterized some holiday promotions over the past couple of years.

"I'll definitely check it out," said 29-year-old Madeleine Corzo. However, she added that Macy's promotion seemed like the better deal, since invitees could get discounts on nearly everything in the store.

Shelly Branch, Stephanie Kang and Amy Merrick of The Wall Street Journal contributed to this report.