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story.lead_photo.caption A GameStop employee assists a customer at a store in Kinston, N.C., on Black Friday. Researchers say the 2017 Christmas shopping season is on track to be the best in years.

Sarah Quinlan has mounds of data at her fingertips to analyze retail sales and customer spending trends as senior vice president of market insights for Mastercard Advisors.

But Quinlan doesn't have to rely on data alone to determine this year's Christmas shopping season has been "tremendous."

"Last year when you walked through the mall you didn't see as many shopping bags," Quinlan said. "This year, you really see a lot of bags, and that's a good thing."

The 2017 holiday shopping season is on track to be the best in years, according to research firms like MasterCard SpendingPulse and retail trade groups. Upbeat consumers have shelled out their money for home furnishings, electronics, jewelry, phones, toys and other goods, and the spending is expected to continue when shoppers head out in search of last-minute items during the final push before Christmas.

According to MasterCard SpendingPulse, U.S. retail spending increased 3.6 percent between Nov. 1 and Dec. 9 compared with the same period a year ago. Online sales also jumped, 16.3 percent, during the same time period.

The results have been so strong that the analytics firm now projects spending could surpass 5 percent year-over-year growth, which would make it the strongest sales increase since 2010.

Customer Growth Partners, a research firm which tracks retail sales from the 50 largest retailers across 90 major shopping venues, boosted its forecast as well, as President Craig Johnson said consumers are "finally flexing their spending muscles" after years of hibernation.

In October, the firm projected a 4.3 percent increase in Christmas season sales from a year ago. It was raised to 5.6 percent last week. If it holds, Johnson said, the increase would represent the strongest holiday retail growth since a 6.1 percent increase in 2005.

"It has been an excellent season," Johnson said. "It's widespread across merchandise categories, across formats, across channels and across income demographics."

Holiday-sales forecasters said there are a number of factors that have led to the better-than-expected spending surge, including early-season promotions offered by retailers and low unemployment levels.

Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group in South Carolina, said almost 31 percent of Americans canvassed in his firm's holiday shopping survey said they were much better off this year than a year ago and it has resulted in more spending.

"You'd have to describe this as a very successful Christmas season," Beemer said.

Johnson said spending growth is evident across all demographics for the first time in years and an increase in disposable income has been the most significant factor.

"That had flat-lined, or slightly slipped, for most of the past 10 years," Johnson said. "Then about a year ago, that figure starting ticking up, and that's the biggest reason why we're seeing great growth."

The confidence to spend has been evident in some of the categories of purchases taking place this holiday season, according to Quinlan of Mastercard Advisors.

There are strong increases in travel, electronics and video-games sales. But home-related purchases have shown the biggest gains, with 11.6 percent sales growth compared with last year, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse data. Furniture and furnishings sales also are up 3.5 percent.

Quinlan said spending money to enhance life at home is part of a larger trend that has been taking place the past couple of years. But it's also an indicator of the low unemployment level.

"We changed our behavior post-recession," Quinlan said. "Now, if we don't have a job, we don't spend. But if we have a job, we spend. ... And because we're seeing such strong spending on both home improvement and furniture and furnishings, it's saying I feel confident I'm going to hold that job."

The increased spending is a good sign for retailers, many of whom have faced a challenging year with declining sales and store closures. Quinlan said there still will be winners and losers this holiday season as in any other year, but there is optimism across retail as the final push before Christmas begins.

Retail analysts and trade groups expect large crowds -- especially on Saturday -- as customers collect the remaining items on their shopping lists. Beemer of America's Research Group said there's "no question" the final Saturday before Christmas will be the biggest day of the year in terms of sales. The National Retail Federation estimates that 53 percent of consumers -- or about 126 million people -- will shop on "Super Saturday."

"It will be a zoo," Quinlan said. "The one thing we know about the American consumer is that we love our last-minute shopping. So we know that the two days before Christmas will be the busiest days, and the only other day that matches it is Black Friday."

Business on 12/21/2017

Print Headline: Yule shopping goes gangbusters

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