Low gas prices, lower jobless rate fuel spending spree



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NEW YORK — A rebounding economy and big discounts fueled Americans to spend more briskly in stores than expected during the winter holiday shopping season.

Sales at 1,000 retail chains nationwide rose 4.6 percent to $270.1 billion in November and December, ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based technology company, said Thursday.

The results beat ShopperTrak's forecast for a 3.8 percent increase and mark the strongest growth since 2005 when sales rose 5.2 percent.

The ShopperTrak data offers the first glimpse of holiday spending, although it does not include online sales. A fuller picture comes next week when the National Retail Federation releases its holiday results based on government data that includes online sales. The trade group estimates a 4.1 percent increase to $616.9 billion.

But the ShopperTrak data suggests Americans are more encouraged by the improving economy, including a rebounding job market and lower gas prices. Even with the positive economic news, though, stores were concerned that shoppers would remain tight fisted during the holiday shopping season, which can account for an average of 20 percent of the industry's annual sales.

Many stores started discounting heavily on holiday merchandise as early as Halloween to help spur spending. They also pulled some deals on the day after Thanksgiving known as Black Friday earlier, resulting in the declining importance of a single day within the season. Additionally, analysts say stores cut back on how much merchandise they carried to avoid having fire sales at the end of the season.

The moves seemed to have worked. At least 10 retailers, including Barnes & Noble and J.C. Penney, reported holiday sales this week that beat expectations.

"The reports strongly suggest that the holiday season turned out to be a pretty good one," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics LLC, a retail research firm. "Consumers felt more confident."

J.C. Penney Co. became the first major retailer to do so on Tuesday when it said revenue at stores open at least a year rose 3.7 percent in November and December. As a result, it now expects the sales metric to be at the upper end of a predicted 2 percent to 4 percent increase for the fourth quarter.

Other retailers followed on Thursday, including Barnes & Noble, which has been struggling to compete with Amazon.com. The company said its revenue at stores open at least a year rose 1.7 percent during the holiday season as sales of physical books continued to stabilize following declines as more customers moved to e-books.

Pier 1 Imports Inc. also reported revenue at stores open at least a year rose 8.2 percent for the five weeks that ended on Jan. 4. It did not have a holiday sales forecast. "Traffic to the brand was up nicely," said Alex W. Smith, President and Chief Executive Officer.

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