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Spending data show strong December sales

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Americans spent more on clothes, shoes, luxury goods and electronics in December than a year earlier, extending retail sales momentum that had been building since August, according to data released Wednesday.

Figures released by MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which tracks spending in all forms including cash, show consumers treated themselves to new clothes and shoes while they shopped for gifts during the most important period of the year for retailers.

Jewelry sparkled, and online sales soared. Even home furnishings and furniture — pummeled by the housing market slump — eked out a small increase for the period from Nov. 28 through Saturday. Meanwhile, electronics sales, hurt by aggressive discounting of televisions, rose only slightly.

Analysts are forecasting that holiday sales — which usually produce about 40 percent of retailers' annual profit — rose faster than in any year since 2006.

"Overall, holiday sales were strong," said Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis at SpendingPulse. "This is the longest sustained improvement since the recession."

The blizzard that buried the Northeast the day after Christmas dampened sales that Sunday, which accounted for about 2.5 percent of the month's sales. But the storm didn't have a major impact on overall sales, according to SpendingPulse. And figures from the International Council of Shopping Centers show sales for last week rose 3.6 percent from a year earlier, suggesting stores made up lost sales at the end of the week.

More details on holiday spending will be revealed Thursday when selected major retailers, including Target Corp. and Macy's Inc., report their sales at stores open at least a year. The International Council of Shopping Centers predicts that key figure will rise 3.5 percent for December and 4 percent for November and December, the biggest increase for the holiday period since 2006.

SpendingPulse did not produce a sales figure for the whole holiday period, but it said last week that spending from Nov. 5 through Dec. 24 hit $584.3 billion, excluding autos. That's 5.5 percent more than a year earlier and the biggest increase in five years.

It's also higher than the record total of $566.3 billion for the period in 2007, though it's lower than 2007 after adjusting for inflation.

The National Retail Federation, which bases its forecast on government data, expects to see that retail sales rose 3.3 percent for November and December. Government figures for December are due Jan. 14.

Spending in many nonessential areas other than clothing remains below pre-recession levels, however. Shoppers face the same challenges as a few months ago, including unemployment stuck at almost 10 percent and a weak housing market. And the outlook for early 2011 is uneven. Easter falls on April 23, three weeks later than last year, and there are no government housing incentives planned to give a little boost to spending.

But improvement is broadening.

"This is a steady build, as opposed to a little surge," said McNamara, referring to the uptick in spending during the first quarter of 2010, which soon fizzled.

Some shoppers are trading back up to their favorite stores, if cautiously.

"We see a shift in attitude toward a preference for best value, versus lowest price last year," said John Morris, BMO Capital Markets analyst.

In the teen arena, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is seeing a resurgence in sales, drawing shoppers back from lower-priced Aeropostale Inc., which was a winner early in the recession but has discounted its goods as much as 75 percent to keep shoppers interested. In children's clothing, the lower-priced Children's Place is losing ground to competitors Gymboree and Gap Kids, both of which have been discounting but offer higher quality, says Morris.

Thursday's other winners are likely to include Macy's Inc., whose tailoring of merchandise to local markets took hold this holiday season. Luxury merchants like Saks Inc. also are expected to fare well, as are discounters including Target, which is expected to benefit from the 5 percent discount it is offering customers who pay with its branded credit cards.

Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, will dissect the individual retailers' reports for any commentary on whether markdowns had any effect on profits.

Analysts also will want details on how post-Christmas shopping is shaping up and what role gift cards are playing. And, of course, there's the blizzard.

"The blizzard is clearly a wild card in trying to assess December," Perkins said.

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