U.S. retailers performed better during the key holiday shopping season this year after a historically dismal 2008, performing in line with dampened expectations, according to data released on Monday.
Activity tracked by SpendingPulse, a unit of MasterCard Advisors, showed retail sales rose 3.6 percent in the period from November 1 through Christmas Eve on December 24.
Factoring out an extra shopping day this year between Black Friday and December 24, that increase was closer to 1 percent, SpendingPulse said. It was not immediately clear how one extra day could boost sales to that extent.
SpendingPulse figures reflect activity that SpendingPulse tracks in the MasterCard Inc payment networks as well as estimates for other payment forms such as cash and checks. They exclude gasoline and automobile sales.
Holiday sales can account for 25 percent to 40 percent of annual sales for many retailers.
This year, fewer consumers had credit cards after issuers tightened lending terms, while many others said they preferred to pay with harder-to-track cash in order to stay on budget.
Looking at the holiday as a whole, industry experts said retail sales saw neither an optimism-inducing upside, nor a deeply worrying downside, to their forecasts.
Holiday 2009 can be described in one word, 'Adequate,' NPD Group Chief Retail Analyst Marshal Cohen said in a note.
The Standard & Poor's Retail Index was up 0.6 percent in late morning trade on Monday. Top retail gainers included Macy's, up 2.5 percent and American Eagle Outfitters, up 3 percent.
The National Retail Federation expects a 1 percent drop in sales for November and December, while other forecasts predict a rise of up to 1 percent.
Even if you have that extra day, the fact is consumers were still in the store that extra day, spending, said Wall Street Strategies Inc analyst Brian Sozzi. That's still toward the high end of the numbers that I was seeing out there leading up to the holidays.
In 2008, spending as tracked by SpendingPulse fell 2.3 percent, as the fresh impact of the financial crisis led consumers to cut back.
Last year the economy and consumer spending were in free fall. This year we're talking about an environment that has stabilized, that has seen a leveling off, said Kamalesh Rao, director of economic research at Spending Pulse.
Rao cautioned that the return of retail spending was tentative and still far below 2007 levels.
SEASON NOT OVER YET
Among stocks cited as holiday season winners this year, Gap Inc rose 0.8 percent. Wal-Mart Stores Inc, which offered early and deep discounts, rose 0.2 percent. Amazon.com Inc, which benefited from higher online shopping overall and its Kindle e-reader, rose 1.8 percent.
Wedbush, which tracked stores in four markets, said traffic at U.S. malls increased over the past weekend, with shoppers looking for last-minute items on December 24 and traffic up significantly on December 26 during after-Christmas sales.
Gap's namesake chain was among the more promotional apparel retailers, offering an additional 40 percent off for clearance items on December 26, Wedbush said.
About 60 percent of the space at Gap stores was made up of sale merchandise, while that level rose to about 70 percent at American Eagle Outfitters and 80 percent at Children's Place and Gymboree, Wedbush said.
While visiting malls on New York's Long Island on Saturday, Sozzi saw customers buy more items than they were returning.
It wasn't just people returning to the store to return items, they were actually buying a mix of full-price and some of the discounted goods. So I think that's a very positive sign as we go into January, he said.
Coupons and gift cards handed out over the weekend to be used in January could drive spending.
But it will be weeks before investors find out what the final push meant to retailers' bottom lines. Several chains plan to report their December sales results on January 7. Full results will come after many retailers wrap up their holiday quarters on January 31.
ONLINE SAW BIGGEST JUMP
The increase tracked by SpendingPulse was aided by a 15.5 percent surge in online purchases, as consumers became more comfortable shopping online and shoppers stranded by snowstorms on the East Coast and in the Midwest bought from home. Online retail sales account for about 5 percent of overall sales.
Sales at specialty electronics chains such as Best Buy Co Inc rose 5.9 percent after falling sharply in 2008.
Luxury sales edged up 0.8 percent. Jewelry sales shot up 5.6 percent and gathered steam just before Christmas.
Men's apparel sales rose 3.9 percent, while women's clothing sales edged down 0.3 percent. Sales at specialty apparel retailers such as Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch Co edged down 0.4 percent, but showed signs of life after Black Friday this year, rising 2.3 percent between the last Friday in November and December 24.
(Editing by Michele Gershberg and Tim Dobbyn)