Like many of you, I've been doing a bit of last-minute shopping. As a student of retail, I've also been observing with interest where the business seems to be happening, and how retailers are handling the pressure.

Very few retailers will consider 2007 a banner year, but the next few shopping days will at least allow some companies to salvage something from what will be for most a dismal holiday shopping season. Here's what I saw heading into the last, and biggest, shopping weekend of the year.

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) was predictably doing a lot of business. With a soft economy, many consumers are trading down -- benefiting discounters. I'm glad to see Wal-Mart's renewed sense of urgency at store level. The shelves were being restocked quickly, and the store gave a general appearance of being more tidy than usual. I heard the manager over the intercom calling for a "full-court press" to restock and clean up the shelves in certain departments several times during my one hour in the store.

The checkout was working much more smoothly than I've seen in recent years. After several years of trying, Wal-Mart has finally nailed self-checkout. While price cuts get most of the play in the media, I think good service is just as important to customers this year. We all know Wal-Mart will have the best prices -- but is it worth the hassle of trying to shop the store? This year, my answer is yes.

It looks like someone forgot to tell Target (NYSE:TGT) that this was Christmas. Except for a few snowflakes hanging at the entrance, Target looked like it does every day of the year. I can understand wanting to present a clean look, but this Target store was almost antiseptic. The company had been running solid comp sales increases through the spring and summer, but appears to have stalled the past few months, including issuing a sales warning the week after Thanksgiving.

The Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) store I shopped wasn't as busy as I expected on a Thursday afternoon; perhaps traffic picked up later in the day. The store was merchandised extremely well, with highly visible and easy to understand displays. I saw a lot of salespeople on the floor, and they were eager to help.

I bought my wife a new computer. She hasn't been too happy with her 6-year-old model this past year. The salesperson spent quality time helping me pick out the right features, then the pocket-protector team from Geek Squad eliminated the unnecessary software and made sure the box was humming. I see Best Buy pulling even further into the lead in consumer electronics this holiday season.

Costco (NASDAQ:COST) was only moderately busy on Thursday evening, looking pretty much like it does on a normal Saturday morning. The store was completely sold through on seasonal (red and green) product, typical for warehouse clubs, which are first-in and first-out of seasonal merchandise. But I saw a lot of cool stuff to buy as gifts. Six registers were open, each with lines about five customers deep.  

Kohl's (NYSE:KSS) was a real disappointment. The apparel side of the store was well stocked, but the housewares section was in disarray, and there didn't seem to be enough staff on hand to do anything about it. Checkout lines were really long -- 20 people trying to pay for merchandise with only three registers open translated into at least 15 minutes in line. For just a couple of items, I decided it wasn't worth the wait.

The store was reasonably busy. Kohl's has very loyal customers who like the brands and the prices. But based on my visit, the company may be risking the loss of some of that loyalty this season, unless it increases its emphasis on shelf maintenance and checkout standards.

No need to remind J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) that Christmas is upon us. The store was decked out to the hilt in red and green -- tastefully done, I might add. I saw more business going on here than at any other mall anchor, but I wonder what the margins will be once the dust settles. I only walked the first floor and was amazed to see every single rack of men's and women's apparel with a sale tag on top.

The malls are filled with apparel-only specialty retailers, but I didn't see a lot of activity at most of them, with the exception of Aeropostale (NYSE:ARO), which was humming. Huge signs in the window advertised 50% off everything in the store; probably a driver for the strong traffic. I expect Aeropostale is selling through its stock quite nicely, but again, the margins may be on the soft side.

That's it for observations from this retail field trip. The last weekend before Christmas arrived, with many retailers racking up 25%-30% of December sales in these last three hectic days. Believe it or not, it's still too soon to tally the winners and losers; consumers are shopping later every season. Next week we'll learn the good, the bad, and the ugly. Stay tuned.

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Fool contributor Timothy M. Otte surveys the retail scene from Dallas. He welcomes comments on his articles, and owns shares of Wal-Mart and Costco, but none of the other companies mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy makes its own holiday wreaths.