Extended shopping hours and big sales helped retailers overcome a sluggish start to the holiday season and post strong sales during the final shopping days of the year.
National retail sales and shopper traffic increased 2.5 percent from the holiday shopping season last year, ShopperTrak announced Wednesday. The boost came largely from last-minute shoppers who waited until the final the weekend before Christmas to hit the stores, according to ShopperTrak, which follows retail foot traffic.
The uptick in sales is positive news for retailers, who scrambled through the holiday season with a flurry of extreme discounts and promotions, "but it's a little bit unremarkable," said Bill Martin, ShopperTrak founder. In October, the research firm had projected a 3.3 percent increase in sales from last year, but in mid-December scaled it back to 2.5 percent to account for the sluggish activity. Other analysts have also scaled back their projections to above 2 percent.
The 2012 holiday season had an unusually long stretch -- 32 days -- between Black Friday and Christmas, and many customers procrastinated. After a shopping lull that worried retailers, the Saturday before Christmas -- known as Super Saturday in the retail world -- turned out to be the second busiest day of the year, after Black Friday. Sales on Sunday were also among the strongest for the year.
Bay Area stores had the added advantage of bad weather this year, which generated big bucks for retailers. The rainstorms that blanketed the region during the weekend before Christmas drove more shoppers to dry and warm malls, where many lingered and extended their shopping to escape the cold and rain.
Martin said lower gas prices encouraged shoppers to make more trips to the mall or visit more stores. Bay Area gas prices were on average about 10 cents per gallon cheaper in December 2012 than the previous year.
The extreme sales retailers pushed this year also wooed shoppers to buy some items that weren't on their list, Martin said. Impulse purchases and shoppers buying gifts for themselves helped boost sales in the final stretch.
Bay Area stores apparently were able to beat back economic worries from the fiscal cliff, and the strong Silicon Valley economy kept local merchants busy when stores elsewhere in the country struggled against the noise of fiscal cliff negotiations. But the distraction of the presidential election and the trauma of the Connecticut school shooting may have pushed holiday shopping to the back burner for some.
"I don't think the retailers could have done anything different this year," Martin said.
ShopperTrak estimates that shoppers spent $249 billion during November and December, when some retailers expect to make up to 40 percent of their annual sales. The National Retail Federation will release its holiday shopping results next week.
Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.