US Retail sales rose 2.8 percent

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 U.S. retailers' winter holiday sales ended up in the middle of recent projections, according to new data from the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) trade group.

For the two-month holiday season — November and December 2006 — chain-store sales went up 2.8 percent. The ICSC and other groups, such as the National Retail Federation, initially predicted a 5 percent boost in retail sales for that period, but later adjusted expectations downward to 2.5 percent to 3 percent.

The 2005 holiday season, by comparison, had a sales increase of 3.6 percent from the previous year.

Chain stores are retail outlets that share the same brand and central management, and are the largest category of store in this country. Chain stores account for more than 60 percent of U.S. retail sales, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"December sales were moderate, but were mixed by retailer and by segment," Michael Niemira, ICSC's chief economist and research director, said in a statement. "More so than in past seasons, this holiday season came down to the week before Christmas, as consumers waited to the last minute to complete their shopping."

The recent holiday shopping season mirrored consumers' continuing spending shift to luxury and department stores, the ICSC report said. Luxury chain stores had the biggest jump in December sales, 8.2 percent, while department stores posted healthy, 3.6 percent sales growth last month.

Wholesale clubs held their own, though, reporting a 6.2 percent sales increase for the month.

Retailers blamed lower sales on a slowdown in the housing market and higher energy costs. Unseasonably warm weather in some parts of the country also dampened winter-clothing sales. At the opposite end of weather extremes, blizzards in the Rocky Mountain West, including Colorado, shut down many stores for a few days.

The ICSC expects comparative-store sales for this month to increase by 2.5 percent to 3 percent, as consumers redeem gift cards. Comparative-store sales are those of stores that have been open a year or more, and a major retail performance indicator.

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