- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Improved consumer confidence helped push up retail sales 3.9 percent last week compared with a year ago as last-minute shoppers hurried to cash registers.

Last week was the best so far in the holiday shopping season with sales up 2.8 percent compared with the week earlier, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York trade group.

U.S. consumer confidence rose this month to 103.6 — the index’s highest level since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August. The confidence index fell to 98.3 in November, according to the Confidence Board, a New York research group. In August, the index was 105.5.

Consumer spending drives about two-thirds of the U.S. economy. Spending levels typically coincide with confidence.

Gary R. Thayer, chief economist for A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in St. Louis, said it was “encouraging that confidence has bounced back after the hurricanes, and it suggests the economy has some good momentum going into the new year.”

More Americans this month than in November said they plan to buy cars and major appliances in the next six months. The Conference Board report also said that consumers found jobs readily available and were encouraged by falling gas prices, allowing for more disposable income during the holiday shopping season.

Sales at shopping malls rose 26 percent last week compared with a year ago and 30 percent compared with the week earlier, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp., a Chicago retail research group. Sales rose an average of 7.4 percent per week this season.

ShopperTrak also attributed the last-minute boost to a longer shopping season and a large number of shoppers taking a day off work Friday, the second-highest sales day of the season behind the day after Thanksgiving.

Shoppers spent $32.2 billion last week using Visa credit and debit cards, an increase of 27 percent over the same period last year, Visa USA said in its weekly tally.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, said it expected December same-store sales to rise 2 percent to 4 percent. Target expected sales to climb 4 percent to 5 percent.

The National Retail Federation said it expected shoppers to spend $439.5 billion this Christmas season, a 6 percent increase from last year.

Gift-card sales accounted for an estimated $18.5 billion of holiday sales, the Washington trade group said. The cards won’t count in retailers’ tallies until they are redeemed, meaning more holiday sales will inch into January.

“The holiday shopping season is far from over, since about 60 percent of gift-card redemptions occur between December 26 and the end of January,” said Michael P. Niemira, the International Council of Shopping Centers’ chief economist .

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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