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A Belated Gift for Retailers

Times Staff Writer

The latest reports on holiday shopping suggested Tuesday that procrastinators gave retailers a last-minute bonus.

After an unsteady season, people quickened their pace in the week before Christmas, sending sales up 2.7% from the prior seven-day period and 4.3% from the same week last year, according to a tally of 79 major retail chains released by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“It’s actually a very good reading,” said Michael Niemira, the council’s chief economist.

But it didn’t change his prediction for November and December combined: He still believes same-store sales will increase 2.5% to 3%. These sales, at stores open a year or more, are key indicators of retail health.

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Another report issued Tuesday, this one by ShopperTrak RCT, estimated that U.S. retail sales jumped 11.6% in the week that ended Dec. 25, as dawdlers finally jumped into action.

“It looks like last-minute shoppers saved Christmas this year,” said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade group.

Now, retailers will be doing what they can to coax gift card holders into stores before New Year’s Day, she said, because gift cards can’t be logged as sales until they’re redeemed.

According to several estimates, gift card sales may have risen to more than $20 billion this season.

“Retailers are continuing to discount and advertise to encourage people to spend their gift cards this week,” Tolley said. “As of Jan. 1, the holiday season is over.”

After a weak showing in November, shoppers perked up over the last three weeks, partly because they were encouraged by an improved job picture, Niemira said.

He pointed to data released Tuesday that indicated U.S. consumer confidence jumped in December to a five-month high, reversing four months of declines and hitting the highest level since July.

“It’s certainly supporting that late surge” in spending, Niemira said.

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Weather also played a role. It was cold in about 90% of the country last week, which Niemira said probably spurred people to go hunting for new sweaters and jackets. And in the Midwest, bitter snowstorms pushed sales later into the week.


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