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Shoppers push through the door of Future Shop for its 6 a.m. Boxing Day sale in Toronto.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

In the pre-dawn cold of Boxing Day, hundreds of shoppers waiting to snap up deals huddled in line at the Future Shop's outlet in downtown Toronto.

Bucking indications of a slower holiday shopping season this year, about 800 people were waiting outside the store by 6 a.m. Employees were surprised by the turnout, which was stronger than in recent years, said a Future Shop spokesman.

But it appears to have been the exception rather than the rule for the retail sector.

Early holiday data suggests possibly one of the slowest holiday shopping seasons since the the 2008 recession, although a more complete picture of holiday retail performance is still weeks away.

Holiday shopping in Canada got off to a slow start, with only 1.3-per-cent growth in November compared with November, 2011, and this was markedly less than the 5.3-per-cent, year-over-year growth in October, according to a survey by MasterCard.

Canadians have tended to be last-minute shoppers in recent years, with the heaviest sales on Dec. 20, 21 and 22, MasterCard said. This puts the onus for retailers on those final few days.

If Canadians follow the U.S. pattern, however, those final days may not have been so good. U.S. retail sales for the period from late October to Christmas Eve rose a mere 0.7 per cent compared with the same period last year, according to the MasterCard survey. This was the worst performance since the depths of the recession in 2008.

Hurricane Sandy and concerns about the "fiscal cliff" are typically cited as factors slowing consumer spending in the States. ShopperTrak reported that U.S. retail sales fell 2.5 per cent for the week ending Dec. 22, compared with the same week a year ago. ShopperTrak also forecasts a lacklustre performance for November and December, with an increase of only 2.5 per cent over the same two-month period in 2011.

In Canada, expectations have also been low coming into the holiday season. A forecast from BMO Nesbitt Burns in December projected that Canadian consumers are "tapped out," with real consumption targeted to rise at a sluggish 2 per cent.

The one positive is online sales, with apparent double-digit growth. MasterCard noted that Canadian e-commerce sales rose 26.4 per cent in November, year-over-year. So while some shoppers may still brave the cold and dark to get bargains, many are clicking online instead.