Thanks to a last-minute rush and post-Christmas mobs of bargain hunters, retailers' weak holiday season has been declared salvaged.
While the Commerce Department won't report official numbers until Thursday, a consensus of chain sales reports and several retail sales indexes released Thursday shows general merchandise sales rose 1.5 to 2 percent in November and December compared with a year earlier.
The results beat the modest sales declines forecast by the industry's biggest trade group, which feared rising unemployment in big states like Florida would forestall any recovery led by consumer spending.
More important for retailers, who planned for frugal shoppers by not stocking up as much this year, profits were bolstered by far less discounting to move unsold goods.
For economists looking for evidence the recession is over, the results showed consumers loosened the grip on their wallets, if not their credit cards.
"The trend through the holidays is now pretty clear that shoppers are moving toward stronger spending into 2010," said Frank Badillo, a senior economist at Retail Forward, a Columbus, Ohio, retail consulting firm. "But it's also clear some cautiousness will persist."
Propelled by a December sales gain bigger than November's, merchants' first seasonal sales gain in three years was uneven. Discount stores and chains that offered values did much better than most department stores. (The nation's largest discounter, Wal-Mart Inc., doesn't break out monthly sales performance.)
"Florida was a bit worse than the rest of the country, but we did better than we expected, and trends are up in both of our businesses," said Steve Knopik, chief executive of Beall's Inc., a Bradenton chain of 80 department stores that also operates a 500-store outlet chain that racked up its best sales month ever in December.
"It's been tough, but our sales were up slightly this time," said Lornie Mueller, co-owner of Lithos Jewelry in St. Petersburg. "We noticed an improvement in consumer attitudes beginning in the fall."
Indeed, sales of jewelry, an industry battered by the recession and widespread store closings last year, was one of the bright spots. Holiday jewelry sales were up 5 percent over the prior year's double-digit declines, according to the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse.
Apparel sales recovered some, with a 0.4 percent improvement, while consumer electronics rose 6 percent, thanks mostly to HD TV sets.
Online retailers were big winners, with sales up 4 percent for the season to $29.1 billion, according to comScore Inc., of what promises to be about $450 billion in overall holiday merchandise sales once brick-and-mortar stores and catalogs are added in.
The top online performers were Amazon.com, Walmart and Best Buy, according to comScore.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.