Santa delivered for many national and local retailers, after a lackluster early holiday season gave way to a post-Christmas surge.
Retail heavyweights including Costco, Gap and Nordstrom on Thursday reported better-than-expected revenue in December after a slow start fueled by Hurricane Sandy and economic fears related to the "fiscal cliff.''
Twenty retailers reported that revenue at stores open at least a year — a figure that indicates a retailer's health — rose an average of 4.5 percent in December compared with a year ago, said the International Council of Shopping Centers.
"I wouldn't be doing cartwheels that it was a particularly great or strong holiday season, but it could have been worse given the headwinds," said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, a research firm. "The government and Mother Nature were not as cooperative as retailers would have liked. But it was definitely not as bad as feared."
Locally, several independent stores said business was the best it has been in years.
At Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, sales were up double digits over last year on everything from ski coats and backpacks to guns and paddleboards. The 66-year-old store, which has broken monthly sales records since September, was closed on New Year's Day but employees came in just to catch up.
"People are getting their confidence back and they are tired of not spending,'' said store vice president Darry Jackson.
He credited the boost to several factors. Customers booked ski trips after being reluctant to spend money on travel during the recession. People worried about increased gun control bought firearms.
Gun sales soared in the days after the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Conn., as talks emerged about stricter gun laws. Then came the Mayan "prediction" that the world would end on Dec. 21. Just in case, many customers bought freeze dried food, first aid kits, tents and sleeping bags.
Sales doubled at Arnold Jewelers in Largo over last year, one of its worst years ever.
"We had a better season than we predicted,'' said Loni Arnold-Wade, sales manager of the 28-year-old family business. "We had a lot of people come in and buy engagement rings, diamond stud earrings and Rolex watches.''
Although sales are still down 30 percent from their peak in 2005, traffic was up this holiday season and shoppers were spending more per transaction, she said. Sales of engagement rings shows that people are more confident about their jobs and future, in general.
Retailers typically make up to 40 percent of their annual sales during the holiday shopping period that runs from November through the end of the year. This year, the South fared better than the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, which have been recovering from Hurricane Sandy and account for about one-quarter of national consumer spending.
The Florida Retail Federation expected the state to fare better than the national average, with 5.2 percent sales growth, thanks to the strong tourism base, reduced unemployment rate and improved housing market. In hindsight, that may have been a bit high.
"In all, it's been good but not great,'' said federation spokesman John Fleming. "We had a fairly optimistic prediction at the beginning of the season, but I'd be surprised if we make it.''
December's sales tax activity won't be reported by the Florida Department of Revenue until the end of February.
Lisa Schalk, co-owner of Toffee to Go in South Tampa, said sales were up 23 percent over last year thanks to the hiring of a corporate sales manager this summer and the opening of a seasonal kiosk at International Plaza.
"I think they were ready to spend money this year and this is an affordable luxury,'' she said. "A lot of people are into consumables. They don't want as much stuff, but it sure is nice to get a little treat.''
Many shoppers unfamiliar with the toffee bought some at the mall, then turned around and placed orders online. "It was wonderful exposure and lent credibility to our business,'' she said.
Even Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg, which like other brick-and-mortar book stores took a beating from e-readers, did okay.
"I think it was probably better than we thought, but our expectations were not high,'' said co-owner Ray Hinst.
Still, he felt optimistic about the upcoming year, based on people's interest in certain printed materials, from children's stories to art books. "We don't think books are going away.''
Information from Times wires was used in this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.