Shoppers Spent More Than Expected This Season

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The much-anticipated, much-feared collapse of retail sales this holiday season did not materialize. Christmas shoppers spent more than expected, but not by much. This year's holiday sales grew, but the pace of growth was slow.


Today at stores all over the country, managers are looking over their accounts and trying to figure out how well they did this Christmas shopping season. Back before Thanksgiving, the expectations were pretty grim. Many expected holiday sales to be horrible.

NPR's Adam Davidson reports, consumers didn't break any records this year, but they didn't stay at home either.

ADAM DAVIDSON: El Milagro in Brooklyn is what New Yorkers call a tsatske shop. That's tsatske from the Yiddish, meaning roughly pretty, shiny stuff that might make you unhappy, but you'd never buy for yourself.

Ms. LINDA SEGUERRA(ph) (Employee, Jewelry Store): You know, masks, paintings, jewelry.

DAVIDSON: Linda Seguerra says this Christmas the big seller was jewelry, specifically earrings.

Ms. SEGUERRA: Lots and lots and lots of earrings.

DAVIDSON: And even more specifically, earrings made out of marcasite.

Ms. SEGUERRA: Everything you see that's sparkling is marcasite.

DAVIDSON: It's a mineral cousin of fool's gold, so you can get a really fancy-looking pair of earrings for, like, $36, which Seguerra says, is exactly what people want this year.

Ms. SEGUERRA: They want the bling and not pay for it.

DAVIDSON: Seguerra says they were worried. A month ago, they were hearing all these news about financial problems in the U.S., the falling dollar, a subprime housing crisis.

Ms. SEGUERRA: They're talking recession, you know? So when you think about that, are people going to be willing to spend some money on jewelry? Probably not. But we were hopeful and we stocked as much as we usually stock.

DAVIDSON: And it worked?

Ms. SEGUERRA: It worked. It worked for us.

DAVIDSON: They sold 90 percent of their jewelry. It wasn't a stellar year. Last year was far better, Seguerra says. But it was decent. Much better than their worst fears. And it's not just here at El Milagro.

Mr. MICHAEL MCNAMARA (Vice President, MasterCard Advisors): Actually, it sounds like they're a pretty good proxy for how retail sales performed overall.

DAVIDSON: Michael McNamara runs research for MasterCard Advisors. MasterCard has become a fast and reliable source for information on how the holiday shopping season went.

Mr. MCNAMARA: It's actually a pretty big effort. We had the idea several years ago. And then we started to build the capability. You need a unique set of people.

DAVIDSON: It's not as simple as adding up how much money people put on their credit cards. MasterCard has a fast response team of economists and statisticians and data engineers who come up with a complex picture of overall retail sales in the U.S. and around the world. And they have it ready to go within hours after Christmas. And this year, there's a lot of interest in those numbers because of those recession fears.

Consumer spending is the main force keeping the U.S. economy growing. And, of course, Christmas is key to consumer spending, so MasterCard's data can help us understand quickly how the economy overall is doing. So what do the numbers say?

Mr. MCNAMARA: If you were expecting this holiday season to reaccelerate growth in consumer spending, that did not happen.

DAVIDSON: It's not that things are awful, McNamara says. Retail sales grew 3.6 percent this holiday season. That's a bit less than last year, but it is a positive number.

Adam Davidson, NPR News, New York.

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