Data Show Retailers Had Good Holiday Sales

The holiday shopping season ended fairly well for U.S. merchants, according to some early data. Retail sales rose an estimated 3.6 percent during the 2009 holiday season, compared with a year earlier. The figures were helped by online shopping and the purchase of electronics.

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The first holiday retail sales numbers are in and they are better than many expected. SpendingPulse, a unit of MasterCard, estimates that sales were up more than 3.5 percent over last year. But retailers aren't celebrating, at least not yet.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN: First, the good news: If you go back to last year, holiday retail spending was in freefall. This year, says Michael McNamara of MasterCard Advisors, it has stabilized.

Mr. MICHAEL MCNAMARA (Vice President, MasterCard Advisors): The good thing about that is that the inventory situation for retailers was more aligned with demand. So, they burned through their inventory. So, you were going to have to replenish those. That's generally a positive thing. So, generally, even though the numbers might not be huge in terms of sales, it's a much healthier season this year compared to a year ago.

KAUFMAN: But keep in mind, 2008, was the worst holiday season in four decades. And McNamara points out that an extra-shopping day between Thanksgiving and Christmas may have helped boost sales over last year. Online sales were especially strong in 2009, and McNamara says there were two factors at work.

Mr. MCNAMARA: One is the ongoing migration from brick-and-mortar location shopping to online shopping. The other is the fact that we had several winter storms this season.

KAUFMAN: Amazon.com said on December 14th, its peak day of the season, shoppers worldwide ordered 9.5 million items. That works out to 110 items per second. They ordered lots and lots of Amazon's electronic book reader, the Kindle, and on Christmas Day, for the first time ever shoppers bought more e-books than physical books. Consumer electronics sold well online and off, so did footwear - probably boots because of the nasty weather - and jewelry.

Ms. PATRICIA EDWARDS (Retail Analyst and Chief Investment, Storehouse Partners): The fact that jewelry was up 5.6 percent versus last year absolutely astounded me.

KAUFMAN: Patricia Edwards is a retail analyst at Storehouse Partners. She says the number was especially surprising because no one seemed to shopping in mall jewelry stores.

Ms. EDWARDS: You know, part of that is I'm sure due to the fact that price of gold is way up this year versus last year. But it also signifies to me that the high-end consumer is truly back and that they were feeling a little bit better and spending on things that would last for their significant others.

KAUFMAN: Still, with unemployment above 10 percent nationwide, spending isn't likely to return to pre-recession levels for a while. And despite the encouraging numbers from MasterCard, the National Retail Federation's Kathy Grannis says the trade group is sticking with its regional forecast: down one percent from last year. Still she says´┐Ż

Ms. KATHY GRANNIS (Spokesperson, National Retail Federation): We are hearing reports of a so-called frugal fatigue where people are taking advantage of these sales and bargains and treating themselves to something that they may not have bought all year long.

KAUFMAN: Hard numbers from the Commerce Department and retailers themselves won't be out to the middle of January.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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