With 11 days until Christmas, shoppers crowded the nation's malls and stores over the weekend, their spirits buoyed by news of Saddam Hussein's capture. But it was unclear whether stores met their sales goals.

Shoppers were out in force on Saturday, according to industry observers, though business dropped on Sunday for many stores, hampered by the second major snowstorm in the Northeast in a little more than a week.

Still, several experts said the news of Hussein's capture, revealed early Sunday, couldn't be a better holiday gift for merchants during the season's last, critical stretch.

``Ultimately, in the long run, this is going to put people in better spirits, and we are definitely excited that this has come during the holiday season,'' Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman at the Washington-based National Retail Federation, said Sunday. ``This is a piece of news that we were not expecting.''

C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, in Charleston, S.C., believes Hussein's capture will result in improved consumer confidence that will translate ``into bigger sales.''

However, that remains to be seen.

Shoppers like Colleen Briggs, braving swirling snow while shopping Sunday at New York's Rockefeller Center, said they were pleased with the news, but it wouldn't make them open their wallets more.

``I'm glad they got him, but it's not going to make me spend more,'' Briggs said. The Tampa, Fla., resident, said she'll spend about $2,000 _ the same amount as last year.

After the heavy snow Dec. 5-6 _ which chilled business at many brick and mortar stores, but fueled online buying _ executives were counting even more on a spending surge this past weekend to reverse lackluster sales. Last year, the second Saturday before Christmas was the third busiest day of the season.

Despite an economy on the rebound, consumers continue to be frugal, and seem to be waiting even later to do their holiday shopping than last year. While recent economic data have been cheery, analysts say consumers are still leery of a sluggish job market that remains a big factor for holiday spending.

``I held onto my job when everyone else was losing theirs and I feel like it's all coming back,'' said Jayne Huddleston, who was at the Galleria Mall in Dallas on Saturday, buying toys and sweaters for her young children. ``I feel like our jobs are a bit more stable and neither one of us has been laid off. And if you can have your job, that's good.''

Still, she plans to spend about $500 this holiday season, about the same as last year.

Martha Vadney, from Albany, N.Y., who was shopping at Bloomingdale's in Manhattan on Saturday, said she doesn't feel any more confident than a year ago. While she believes her husband's job is secure, the couple still hasn't recouped their stock market losses.

Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers, which owns or manages 31 shopping centers in 13 states, said that sales were up mid to single digits at stores on Saturday from a year ago, but business was slow on Sunday because of snowy conditions.

Beemer said traffic and sales were healthy at a spot-check of 11 malls nationwide on Saturday.

NRF's Tolley said the Sunday snow shouldn't affect the overall weekend's business for retailers.

Major retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and Target Corp. are expected to report their weekly results, including from this past weekend, on Monday.

Meanwhile, online sales have remained a bright spot this holiday season. Online sales, which exclude travel and auctions, were up 31 percent to $2.16 billion for the week ended Friday, according to comScore Networks Inc.

Matthew Muterspaugh, who was shopping at the CambridgeSide Galleria in Boston, said he bought more of his gifts online this holiday season than in the past, partly because he found better deals. He was picking up a few items on Saturday, including ski socks and a ballerina ornament.

Lois Denney, who was shopping at the Oakwood Shopping Center in New Orleans on Friday, also spent more online than in the past.

``We shopped online for the first time last year, and it worked out great,'' Denney said. ``The best part is there's no wrapping.''

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Associated Press writers Theo Emery in Boston; Megan Reichgott in Chicago; Penny Cockerell in Dallas; and Stacey P. Jenkins in New Orleans contributed to this report.