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Holiday season retail sales up 3.8 percent

Retail sales softened in December, leaving merchants with a decent but hardly rock-solid 3.8 percent sales gain for the two-month holiday shopping season.

Retailers who rolled out the discounts early this time prevailed, before blizzards across the Midwest and Northeast around Christmas Day made shut-ins of some shoppers who would have been out spending all those holiday gift cards.

"In Florida, business is gradually getting better, but it was still pretty difficult," said Steve Knopik, chief executive of Beall's Inc., a Bradenton chain with 80 department stores that posted flat sales and 460 outlet stores that saw a percentage gain in the mid single digits. "The worst of it appears to be behind us, but we still need higher employment, a stable housing market and people migrating here again."

"We're up and, given the Florida economy, pretty happy," said Jay Botsch, manager of West­Shore Plaza in Tampa.

Nationally, December sales rose 3.1 percent in stores open more than a year, a barometer of consumer spending, according to an International Council of Shopping Centers index based on 32 of the largest chains. That pulled down November's stronger results, which were bolstered by a discount-driven Black Friday that ended up the biggest sales day of the year.

"It's clear that November's great deals robbed spending in December when shoppers were partial to spending online, perhaps encouraged by bad weather late in the month," said Frank Badillo, a senior economist at research firm Kantar Retail.

The holidays are a big deal to many retailers. The two months account for half of all toy and a third of all apparel, accessories and jewelry sold all year. Some economic changes:

• Department stores and luxury retailers, which lost ground to discount stores in the recession, made a comeback. In December Dillard's sales rose 6.2 percent, Kohl's 5.9 percent, Nordstrom 11.2 percent, Neiman Marcus 4.8 percent and Saks Fifth Avenue 9.7 percent.

• Flat to down were American Eagle Outfitters, Gap, Hot Topic and Target.

• Bookstores suffered 10 percent traffic declines as more business shifted online or to digital readers such as Kindle and Nook.

• Amazon.com was the only big retailer to show a "significant increase" in gift shoppers compared with last year, according to Kantar. Its Shopperscape survey found 42 percent of all gift shoppers looked for gifts there, up from 38 percent a year ago. Toys "R" Us and Target were the only other companies among 34 types of retailers measured to post a positive gain in gift buying traffic.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com.

Holiday season retail sales up 3.8 percent 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 9:00pm]

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