NEW YORK — Penny-pinching Americans are getting cold feet at the checkout — thinking twice about spending and ditching items before they're rung up.

NEW YORK — Penny-pinching Americans are getting cold feet at the checkout — thinking twice about spending and ditching items before they're rung up.

They're leaving sweaters in the dress department, dumping cookies near the grocery cashier and waiting until the last minute to weigh wants versus needs. Online, shoppers are abandoning their virtual carts as they search for better deals.

People "want to be in the act of shopping, but they don't want to be in the act of buying," said Joel Bines, a director at AlixPartners, a turnaround consultant.

It means more lost sales for stores at a time when there already are fewer customers because of the recession. For bricks-and-mortar shops already working with fewer staff, it also means more work because orphaned items have to be restocked.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but Burt P. Flickinger III, a retail consultant, estimates that in 25 percent of shoppers' trips to the store, they're ditching at least one item. In the recession of the early 1990s, it was 15 to 20 percent. In good times, it's more like 10 percent.

Ashley Nichols Guttuso of Midlothian, Va., dumped a red cardigan last week at the counter at the local Limited store after she found out she couldn't use a $15 store coupon on the $15 sweater.

Guttuso says she could have afforded it, but she has focused on necessities since losing her job as a copywriter for Circuit City in January, as the chain was preparing to go out of business.

"I went in there thinking I could get something for free," said the 27-year-old. "I couldn't rationalize it — even spending $15 to $20. I am watching everything now."

Besides abandoning goods while standing in line, they're paying close attention once checkout begins. They ask cashiers to provide a total while they're still scanning items to see where they stand, or to have necessities like health care basics scanned first, said Dan Fishback, chief executive of DemandTec Inc., a retail technology company. When they hit their limit, they forgo what's left in the basket.

Lower credit limits also are contributing to the abandonment.

Shoppers say credit card transactions are being denied if they go over their limit just a bit, said Ben Woosley, director of marketing and consumer research at CreditCards.com. In the past, issuers often would approve purchases up to 10 percent over the limit.

Web retailers always have grappled with high abandonment rates because of confusion and technology glitches. Plus shoppers are less invested in the process because they didn't have to drive anywhere. But even online stores say orphaning has escalated.

The Container Store, which sells storage items, has seen its online abandonment rate rise to 68 percent. The company has launched an e-mail campaign to remind shoppers of their abandoned purchases and a service that lets shoppers pick up online purchases at the store.