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12-23-2012--(LANG Staff Photo by Sean Hiller)- Pauline Atwood,left, of Long Beach shops for holiday gifts with sister-in-law Kathryn Atwood at Merry's Fashion with Passion in Long Beach on Sunday.

Just as holiday shopping sales nationally saw the worst decline since 2008, local shopping districts are expecting a drop in sales as well.

"We didn't see the traffic that we have seen in prior years," said Raquel Beard, spokeswoman for the Downtown Long Beach Associates.

She said that although official numbers won't be ready until next week, she suspects holiday shopping numbers are down slightly.

"Our guess is that this is because of the economy, but we will be doing surveys and a study to produce more accurate numbers and reasoning," she said.

A report that tracks spending on popular holiday goods, the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, said Tuesday that sales in the two months before Christmas increased 0.7 percent from last year. This was a disappointment to retailers, as many analysts had expected holiday sales to grow 3 or 4 percent.

Long Beach Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Randy Gordon said the decline in holiday shoppers can, in large part, be attributed to the major concern surrounding the fiscal cliff.

"It's a combination of factors for sure," Gordon said. "From Superstorm Sandy to the tragedy in Newtown, but I think the No. 1 reason that holiday shopping was lackluster this year is the real worry about what Congress will do with this looming fiscal cliff."

If Americans remain reluctant to spend, analysts say, economic growth could falter next year.


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In the end, even steep last-minute discounts weren't enough to get people into stores, said Marshal Cohen, chief research analyst at the market research firm NPD Inc.

"A lot of the Christmas spirit was left behind way back in Black Friday weekend," Cohen said, referring to the traditional retail rush the day after Thanksgiving, in a press release. "We had one reason after another for consumers to say, `I'm going to stick to my list and not go beyond it."'

Holiday sales are a crucial indicator of the economy's strength. November and December account for up to 40 percent of annual sales for many retailers. If those sales don't materialize, stores are forced to offer steeper discounts.

That's a boon for shoppers, but it cuts into stores' profits.

One last-minute shopper, Jeff Schmidt, of Long Beach, embraced the discounts at Lakewood Mall on Wednesday.

"I went shopping on Christmas Eve and it is clear that the sales are better now than before the holidays," he said.

Schmidt said he bought a jacket from the Gap for $40 less than it was priced on Christmas Eve.

"It was worth waiting," he said. "I have found several sales and am more willing to open my wallet - the prices haven't gone up, they have only dipped."

Dede Rossi, President of the Belmont Shore Business Association, said her association and Shore businesses tried to entice shoppers to the area this year with free parking three weekends in a row.

"This is the first time we offered free parking for three straight weekends," she said. "People really seemed to enjoy it and the streets were full. As far as actual numbers, that is still to be determined."

Rossi said she couldn't comment on holiday shopping numbers because it is so soon after Christmas, but said she "suspects the numbers are down a bit."

Spending by consumers accounts for 70 percent of overall economic activity, so the eight-week period encompassed by the SpendingPulse data is seen as a critical time not just for retailers, but also for manufacturers, wholesalers and companies at every other point along the supply chain.

The SpendingPulse data include sales by retailers in key holiday spending categories such as electronics, clothing, jewelry, luxury goods, furniture and other home goods between Oct. 28 and Dec. 24. They include sales across all payment methods, including cards, cash and checks.

Despite the weak numbers out Tuesday, retailers still have some time to make up lost ground. 

The final week of December accounts for about 15 percent of the month's sales, Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, said in a press release. As stores offer steeper discounts to clear some of their unsold inventory, they may be able to soften some of the grim results reflected in Tuesday's data.

Analysts though blamed the poor numbers on the weather and worries surrounding the "fiscal cliff."

In December, lawmakers remained unable to reach a deal that would prevent tax increases and government spending cuts set to take effect at the beginning of 2013. If the cuts and tax hikes kick in and stay in place for months, many economists expect the nation could fall back into recession.

kelsey.duckett@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2128, Twitter.com/KelseyDuckett