The estimates are still preliminary and focus on sales, not profits. A handful of retailers will post sales data next week, but most, including heavyweights like Wal-Mart, will not report results at the register until they release financial results in mid-February.
Analysts have also said many retailers entered the season with inventories under control, which could help protect margins.
Still, the latest holiday season sales could end up the weakest since 2008, during the last recession, when sales dropped 4.4 percent in November and December.
"The broad brush was Christmas wasn't all that merry for retailers, and you have to ask what those margins look like if the top line didn't meet their expectations," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.
Analysts and industry groups already expected sales to grow at a slower pace than in 2011 and 2010. The National Retail Federation predicted 4.l percent sales growth, versus a 5.6 percent increase a year earlier.
But growth of less than 1 percent is weaker than even some of the most pessimistic forecasts, and markets reacted accordingly.
The S&P retail index fell 1.8 percent in midday trading Wednesday. The 13 weakest stocks in the broader S&P 500 were all retailers or consumer brands.