Ventnor resident Josephine Sierra stuck to practical items Wednesday when she returned Christmas gifts at Target in Mays Landing and looked for after-holiday bargains.

“Moneywise, economy-wise, I look for any sales that pertain to household goods, clothing, anything that can benefit the family,” said Sierra, 62.

From too-tight T-shirts to unwanted toys, gift returns made up a portion of foot traffic Wednesday at area retailers, which tried to draw shoppers with earlier openings, sales and discounted Christmas decorations and wrapping paper.

Rebecca Daniels, a 38-year-old Cape May Court House resident, returned a slow cooker she bought her husband.

“He made a comment about wanting one so I got one,” she said. “And then he realized he couldn’t manipulate the recipes as much when it’s in the slow cooker.”

Galloway Township resident Sherri Parmenter headed into Macy’s at the Hamilton Mall with a few bags — and one obvious complaint.

“I bought a pair of shoes. We opened them up — I have two left shoes,” she said. “Needless to say, I have to return them.”

Whether shoppers return gifts or look for deals, Dec. 26 is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The day had the fourth-most foot traffic last year and is expected to have the fifth-most this year, according to ShopperTrack, a Chicago-based retail analysis company.

Post-Christmas sales may take on more significance this year, as early signs indicate the holiday shopping season was slower than expected.

The period from Black Friday to Dec. 31 can make up 20 percent to 40 percent of a retailer’s annual sales, said John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association.

“A lot of emphasis is placed on Black Friday, but really the holiday sales go over into January, especially because of the increasing popularity of gift cards,” he said.

Gift cards and returns for store credit are especially valuable to retailers when shoppers spend more than the gift card’s value to buy items, he said.

Dec. 26 is the biggest day of the year for gift card redemption, said Target spokeswoman Lou Ann Olson.

This year, local shoppers contended with cold, gray and rainy weather. And — unlike Dec. 26, 2011 — this year’s Dec. 26 fell in the middle of the work week.

Joe Weyhmiller, an assistant store manager at Target and a Franklin Township resident, said the Mays Landing store opened at 7 a.m., an hour earlier than normal. About 40 people were waiting outside by then.

Foot traffic seemed typical for the day after Christmas, he said, noting that he had seen fewer returns, while holiday décor, wrapping paper and plastic storage tubs were in strong demand.

Bill Schu, general manager at the Hamilton Mall, said Wednesday morning was less crowded than in the past, although it typically picks up in the afternoon.

“What I noticed this year is that they slept in,” he said. “It’s pretty quiet in the morning. This area doesn’t get up early in the morning. It doesn’t start bustling until around lunchtime.”

Holiday returns brought Galloway Township resident Kerrie Benitez to Target with her two children, Mateo, 9, and Kieran, 11.

Kieran was returning an iPhone case her brother had bought her, but decided to wait to use the credit.

“She’s saving it. They didn’t have what she wanted, so she’s saving her store credit for something else,” Benitez said.

They did buy some candy, however.

Retail sales are an important economic force, but some recent reports and surveys indicated the economy, Hurricane Sandy and other events may be curbing spending.

In a survey conducted on behalf of the National Retail Federation, a Washington, D.C-based trade group, about 48 percent of people polled said the state of the economy was affecting their spending plans.

MasterCard Advisors Spending Pulse on Tuesday reported holiday spending increased less than 1 percent from last year, despite some expectations it would increase 3 or 4 percent, The Associated Press reported.

A clearer sense of the holiday shopping season will be known in January, said Holub, of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association.

He said the few days after Dec. 25 can be as important to retailers as the few days before it.

“Certainly everybody’s expectations are cautiously optimistic considering the economic environment,” he said. “I think any retail sales gain, even a modest one, is obviously welcomed.”

Staff Writer Dave Simpson contributed to this report.

Contact Brian Ianieri:

609-272-7253