Holiday sales are up, offering relief to retailers

NEW YORK — The holiday shopping season is wrapping up to be bigger than anyone expected. Retailers are holding their breath and hoping consumers will keep spending in the final days before Christmas.

Holiday shoppers got serious about buying last week. Sales spiked for the week that ended Saturday compared with the previous week, according to ShopperTrak.

The Chicago-based research firm reported Wednesday that total sales rose 21.7 percent from the previous week and 1.3 percent over the same week a year earlier.

Sales from Nov. 1 through Saturday are up 2.5 percent, ShopperTrak reported. The increase offers relief to stores, which had seen a lull in sales after a record spending spree over the Thanksgiving weekend, the official start of the holiday season.

November sales rose 4.1 percent, but so far this month, sales are up a modest 0.5 percent compared with the year-ago period. Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, is counting on a final spending surge before Christmas to meet its holiday sales growth forecast of 3.7 percent compared with a year ago. ShopperTrak upgraded its forecast from 3.0 percent last week, reflecting optimism that more spending is to come.

“December’s retail gains will likely continue all the way through Christmas and the end of Hanukkah,” Martin said in a statement.

Despite the sales increase last week over the previous week, sales on Saturday declined 0.7 percent over the same period a year ago. Shoppers spent $7.5 billion this past Saturday, compared with $7.55 billion in the year-ago period, according to ShopperTrak.

not yet merry and bright

The increases are good news for retailers, but they’re not out of the woods yet. The final week before Christmas, which includes four of the top 10 holiday shopping days, can account for up to 20 percent of sales for the season.

“I don’t think anybody has claimed victory yet, but very few are writing concession speeches,” said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at consulting firm Kurt Salmon. “This Christmas will not be a blowout, but despite all the nervousness about the economy, it will be a decent Christmas.”

This is the most important time of year for retailers. They can make 25 percent to 40 percent of their annual sales in the last two months of the year. And this holiday season, stores are expected to ring up $469.1 billion, according to the National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group.

Retailers were nervous that Americans were so scared about another recession that they wouldn’t do much shopping. In fact, consumers themselves told consulting firm Deloitte in September that they planned to spend about 5 percent less on Christmas this year.

That led stores to panic. They began discounting earlier in the season and offering profit-busting incentives, such as free shipping and juicy financing deals.

Despite all the worrying, the season has been a lot brighter than expected.

Since the beginning of the season, the Retail Association of Nevada has been optimistic about the likelihood of better-than-expected results in Nevada, estimating a 6.4 percent increase in holiday spending this year. In November, Gallup released its second holiday spending survey, which estimated a 7 percent increase in spending over last year.

“The strong spending results for the Black Friday weekend are one reason to remain optimistic about the 2011 holiday season. We are now in the final week before the Christmas holiday, which is when we normally witness a surge of last-minute shoppers. Hopefully, their spending trends will mirror those reported on Black Friday,” said Mary Lau, president of the Retail Association of Nevada.

Back to what they used to know

Shoppers appear to be more willing to spend this holiday season after having cut back during the weak economy.

Lynn Vance of Chicago was excited to shop this year after landing a new job. Vance, 36, said she and her friends were struggling with recession fatigue, itching to mark the occasion after years of contending with the economic downturn.

“Last year, I was unemployed,” she said. “This year, I have money, and I want to share my happiness with others. … I think you can only stay crouched in the position of uncertainty for so long.”

Retailers are cautiously optimistic. Shoppers still are budget-conscious and are looking for bigger discounts.

“Shoppers are waiting for prices to plunge,” said retail analyst Brian Sozzi.

Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Laura Carroll contributed to this report.

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