hsomerville@bayareanewsgroup.com

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 weekend before Christmas to hit the stores, according to ShopperTrak, which follows retail foot traffic.

The uptick in sales offers some much-needed 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.

"I don' think the retailers could have done anything differently," he said, citing consumer uncertainty about the fiscal cliff and pre-occupation with the election.

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.

The 2012 holiday season had an unusually long stretch -- 32 days -- between Black Friday and Christmas, and many shoppers 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.

ShopperTrak estimates that shoppers spent $249 billion during November and December, when some retailers get up to 40 percent of their annual sales.

Bay Area stores had the added advantage of bad weather. The rainstorms that blanketed the region during the weekend before Christmas weren't wild enough to down powerlines but were dreary enough to drive shoppers to dry and warm malls, where many lingered and extended their shopping to escape the cold and rain, mall managers said.

Shoppers who made impulse purchases helped boost sales in the final stretch. The promotions retailers pushed this year wooed shoppers to visit more stores than last year and buy items that weren't on their list, Martin said.

Lower gas prices also encouraged shoppers to make more trips to the mall or visit more stores, Martin said. Bay Area gas prices were on average about 10 cents a gallon cheaper in December 2012 than the previous year.

Bay Area stores said they were able to beat back economic worries spurred by the fiscal cliff, and the strong Silicon Valley economy kept local merchants busy when stores elsewhere in the country struggled against the noise of deadlocked budget negotiations in Washington. The Bay Area's booming job growth, which outpaces the national average, and high salaries in the tech industry kept shoppers confident to open their wallets a bit wider than consumers in other parts of the country.

Larry Enos, and his wife Jessica Enos, of Brentwood, shop at Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek, Calif. on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)
Larry Enos, and his wife Jessica Enos, of Brentwood, shop at Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek, Calif. on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff) (JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO)

According to a consumer survey by Citi done in November 2012, about three-quarters of San Francisco area residents believe their financial situations are the same or better than a year ago, and that they would earn more money in 2013.

The 2012 holiday season marked the third consecutive year of increased retail sales, and the second of the past three years that saw increased foot traffic. But Marshal Cohen, a consumer behavior and retail expert with The NPD Group, cautions that ShopperTrak's traffic figures don't tell the whole story about consumers' plunging Christmas spirit and their fizzling desire to shop -- which may carry over to 2013.

"While traffic is a preliminary indicator about holiday sales, it's not a tell-all story," Cohen said. "Consumer sentiment changed dramatically from the beginning of the holiday period."

There was a lot of bad news and distractions to dampen even die-hard shoppers' excitement to hit the malls during the bustling season. The presidential election, Superstorm Sandy and the Connecticut school shooting may have pushed holiday shopping to the back burner for some.

"There was a tremendous amount of distractions, each and every week, starting the week before the election," Cohen said. "The consumer psyche was so different this year."

The U.S. Department of Commerce will release its December sales numbers in February, and Cohen expects those numbers will reflect shoppers' anxiety during the holidays. With more fiscal cliff fights ahead in March, Cohen expects shoppers' nervousness will carry over into early 2013.

Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.

Holiday retail sales
National retail sales and shopper traffic rose 2.5 percent for the 2012 holiday season over the previous year. December marked the third year in a row of improved holiday retail sales but analysts caution that the economic worry and trauma of the Connecticut school shooting that extinguished the Christmas spirit for many shoppers may extend into 2013.