NEW YORK — Generous discounts lured Americans to stores and online for holiday gifts in November, providing cheer and delivering the best gains for retailers in four years.
That raises hopes, already buoyed by reports of crowded malls and early numbers, for a strong holiday shopping season and is an encouraging sign for the economic recovery.
The International Council of Shopping Centers' index reported a 5.8 percent gain, much better than the 3 to 4 percent increase expected.
It marked the biggest increase since March, when a quirk of the Easter calendar resulted in a 9 percent gain. Aside from that month, the last time retailers reported such a big increase was in September 2006, when there was a 6.2 percent increase.
"All forces came together to yield a performance better than what we've seen in the last four years," said Mike Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers.
Many types of shoppers were in the mood to buy last month — if the product and price were right. Stores reporting gains that topped Wall Street expectations included Costco Wholesale, Target, Victoria's Secret and pricey teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch.
One of only a handful of disappointments was teen retailer Aeropostale, which announced a management shakeup late Wednesday amid a surprise decline in November.
"Overall, discretionary spending looks to be making a comeback," said Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics. The upbeat commentary from retailers' reports Thursday "are encouraging signs."
But "consumers are still looking for deal; that is deeply ingrained," he added. The question is whether Black Friday-type promotions will be necessary to bring shoppers back in.
The stakes are high, because the holiday season accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual revenue and profits for retailers. For toy merchants, that figure is 50 percent. The National Retail Federation is sticking to its 2.3 percent holiday growth forecast and said it's too early to upgrade it. The strong results for November followed tepid sales in September and October.