Image: Shoppers on Sixth Avenue in NYC
Don Emmert  /  AFP - Getty Images
Most shoppers still had about half their Christmas shopping left heading into the weekend, according to the National Retail Federation trade group. It expects holiday sales to increase 3.3 percent, approaching 2007 levels.
By
updated 12/19/2010 7:01:39 PM ET 2010-12-20T00:01:39

Packed malls? Healthy gains in holiday spending? It's beginning to look at least a little like a pre-recession Christmas.

Americans spent more on clothing, luxury goods and even furniture, delivering healthy gains across the board, according to MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which tracks spending across all transactions including cash. The online category continued to be a bright spot. The big exception was consumer electronics, dragged down by deep discounting of TVs amid a glut. That area was virtually unchanged from a year ago.

  1. More must-read stories
    1. The Hartford Courant, Political
      Wild Wall St.

      Has the market volatility got you nervous? These cartoons may give you a little comic relief.

    2. Cyber-thieves create fake Kelley Blue Book site
    3. US says Reebok toning shoes don't really
    4. Can you live on $9 an hour? Play the game

"This is the first normal Christmas in three years," said Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis for SpendingPulse. He said there is "genuine demand" for a variety of products, even higher-ticket items.

Sales of clothing rose 9.8 percent, with particular strength in men's clothing. Jewelry revenue rose 2.6 percent and furniture rose 3.4 percent, according to SpendingPulse, whose data covered the period from Oct. 31 through Saturday compared with the same period a year ago.

Malls reported higher traffic over the weekend, including the Saturday before Christmas, known as "Super Saturday." It's one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Research firm ShopperTrak expects it will be the third-busiest this year. The lack of any major storms nationwide was a boon for shoppers.

The strong numbers are encouraging to retailers, who only this fall remained worried that the inventory they ordered earlier in the year when the economic recovery looked stronger might end up being too much.

But after a slowdown in spending this summer, spending has picked up amid more positive economic signs. McNamara said that there's no evidence of emergency discounting and that stores have appropriate levels of inventory.

Robin Lewis, CEO of The Robin Report, a retail insiders' newsletter, said the spending stems from three factors: consumers have been paying down their debt slightly, the savings rate has decreased slightly and working hours have increased, partly due to seasonal demand.

"Those three things put a few more bucks in their pocket," which becomes signficant combined with pent-up demand.

Still, spending is still below pre-recession levels in many categories. McNamara estimated that furniture is about 20 percent below the level before the Great Recession, while luxury and jewelry sales are about 10 percent below the peak before the big downturn. Clothing sales are recovering faster.

At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the nation's largest mall, Public Relations Director Dan Jasper said a big snowstorm the weekend before that closed the mall early had shoppers packing the mall to catch up. Preliminary reports showed 200,000 came to the mall Saturday, making it one of its busiest days ever and the busiest day so far this year.

"People are a little panicked. I'm hearing them say 'We've gotta get this done,' and that doesn't usually show up until the 22nd or the 23rd."

It wasn't the only mall that saw packed stores and parking lots. Greg Maloney, CEO of the retail practice of Jones Lang LaSalle, which operates about 90 malls across the country, said traffic was up 10 percent to 12 percent across the country over the same weekend last year.

Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman for Taubman Centers Inc., which owns or manages 26 shopping centers, said many stores were reporting higher traffic.

Most shoppers still had about half their Christmas shopping left heading into the weekend, according to the National Retail Federation trade group. It raised its holiday sales forecast last week to a 3.3 percent rise, approaching 2007 levels, from an earlier forecast of a 2.3 percent increase.

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Myron E. Ullman III, chairman and CEO, noted that he feels good about the holiday season so far, and that inventory is in line with demand. Like many other retailers, Penney had slim offerings last Christmas because it worried about having too many leftovers. Consequently, many merchants, including Penney, sold out of some items earlier in the 2009 Christmas season.

"People seem to be feeling better," he said.

Shoppers stuck to lessons learned during the recession: using cash, not credit, and sticking to a budget. Although they are spending slightly freer, with unemployment still stuck at 10 percent and a strained housing market consumers are still under pressure to spend wisely.

"The consumer has returned, not blindly, but thoughtfully," said Stifel Nicolas analyst Richard Jaffe.

"I have a budget and when it's gone, it's gone," said Nicala King of Vancouver, Wash., who was at Barnes & Noble picking up a few final items. She was set on preserving the savings she built up after paying off her credit cards last year.

Retailers are offering promotions that are more planned than last year, Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said.

Ann Taylor Loft, for example, has had a 40 percent off promotion in its stores since Black Friday, although on Saturday it increased that to 50 percent off for sweaters.

"It's not slash-and-burn on prices, but promotions are out there, and that is one of the main ingredients driving sales," he said.

Online shopping was going strong as well. On Saturday, online retail spending rose 18 percent, and the average order size rose 4 percent to $169.04 compared to the same day a year ago, according to IBM Coremetrics. As of Friday, shoppers have spent $27.46 billion online since Nov. 1, up 12 percent from last year, according to research firm comScore Inc.

Paul and Connie Surface drove about 60 miles Saturday from their Waveland, Ind., farm to downtown Indianapolis to buy a bottle of Coach Inc.'s Poppy perfume for their daughter-in-law and take in the mall scene. They've shopped every weekend since Thanksgiving and are pretty much finished.

"This is not a bad economy if you've got a job," said Paul, 62. "The stores are discounting nice, and the interest rates are low."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Holiday shoppers cautiously open wallets again

  1. Closed captioning of: Holiday shoppers cautiously open wallets again

    >>> from chaos at the airport to the shopping malls here at home, the the holiday rush is on. shoppers were out in force this last weekend before christmas. that may be good news for a fragile economy. our report from nbc's kevin tibbles.

    >> reporter: if you notice the main streets and the malls are busier this holiday season , you're not alone.

    >> there's good store deals out there, so you can get a little bit more for your money.

    >> reporter: across the country shoppers are out in droves.

    >> i'm using cash, so i'm spending what i anticipated on spending.

    >> reporter: at the tyson's corner mall outside washington, d.c., they're buying but they're buying smart.

    >> i don't think i'll buy a lot of nonsense. i'll personalize them or buy one big gift or something personal.

    >> in the prior years consumers were more need based and reserved and cautious with the shopping. people are having fun again this year. it's nice to see.

    >> reporter: retail sales this season have exceeded expectations so much so the national retail federation has increased its forecast to 3.3%, and they say it's being driven by consumer confidence . the federation says the the floodgates have opened at least a little and consumers are once again opening their wallets. what are they buying? clothing. sale of apparel is up for the season. jewelry sales are up 2.6%. sporting goods , hobby, book and music sales have increased 2.3% and many are foregoing the mall for online shopping . e-mer e-commerce is up 13.5%.

    >> inventories need to be replaced next year. retailers doing relatively well might be more likely to keep on the seasonal hires that they did.

    >> reporter: even on a chilly sunday in the windy city , there are plenty of shoppers and shopping bags along michigan avenue 's magnificent mile .

    >> it feels like more people than last year.

    >> reporter: after a hard recession that put the american consumer on the endangered species list , this christmas the shopper appears to be back. kevin tibbles, nbc news, chicago.

Explainer: 12 hit toys of Christmases past

  • Hers & Mine Antiques Mall

    The new video game systems Microsoft Kinect and PlayStation Move will almost certainly be huge sellers — the toys most likely to cause a panic among eager shoppers over the next month.

    (Mnsbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

    Then again, the media darling this Christmas could just as easily be a bizarre-looking ball of fur that spouts insults in a made-up language. That’s the fun of hot holiday toys. No one knows that a Furby doll or a Tickle Me Elmo will cause otherwise rational shoppers to trample their fellow man until the free market decides for itself.

    Here are a dozen of the most popular, groundbreaking and notorious holiday toys from the past 80 years. We looked beyond the most famous toys of all time, choosing items that peaked in popularity just before the holiday season, experienced shortages around Christmas and in many cases quickly fell out of favor after the hype was over. (Which explains why Teddy Ruxpin made this list, while Barbie dolls and hula hoops didn’t.)

    Also included is the original retail price was included for each toy, and what collectors are asking for the toy on eBay. (A median price was chosen in most cases.) As you’ll see, it’s much better to have a “Star Wars” action figure in its original packaging than a Zhu Zhu Pet …

  • Shirley Temple doll (1934)

    Hers & Mine Antiques Mall

    The hype: Who can we blame for the holiday toy madness that makes children and parents insane around the holidays? Shirley Temple. The first celebrity-driven doll was manufactured by The Ideal Toy and Novelty Company when Temple was 6 years old, in the third year of her movie career. The demand became huge after the child actor’s breakout film, “Bright Eyes,” was released three days before Christmas. Ideal sold a reported $45 million worth of Shirley Temple dolls in seven years.

    Price in 1934: $2.89 to $5.79

    eBay price in 2010: $1,545.50

    Bet you didn’t know … While the actress was the model for the doll, Ideal didn’t think to put Temple’s name on the package until after the first generation.

    Where are they now? Sales continued until 1941, with several re-releases during the past 70 years.

  • Chatty Cathy (1960)

    Courtesy of Hankiesandmore.com

    The hype: In a move that charmed a generation of young girls — and a few future horror film directors — the Mattel Corporation put a phonograph in an otherwise unremarkable doll, allowing her to say 11 different lines when a ring was pulled. The two neediest lines: “Do you love me?” and “Please brush my hair!” Cathy was the inspiration for the Talking Tina doll (“I’m Talking Tina and I’m going to kill you”) in a memorable 1963 episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

    Price in 1960: $19.90

    eBay price in 2010: $195.00

    Bet you didn’t know … A 1969 reissue used the voice of Maureen McCormick from “The Brady Bunch.” Voice actress June Foray provided the voices of both Chatty Cathy and Talking Tina.

    Where are they now? Sales continued until 1965, with updates in the 1970s and 1980s. Most surviving Chatty Cathys are mute; several of the vital mechanisms weren’t built to last.

  • G.I. Joe (1964)

    Anonymous  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The hype: After watching the Barbie line of toys become a market force, Hasbro came up with G.I. Joe, a foot-tall military action figure (don’t call it a doll!) with a name inspired by the 1945 movie “The Story of G.I. Joe.” The figures came with names like “Ace” and “Rocky,” and didn’t have much variety — developing scuba diving, astronaut and other themes in subsequent years. The figures were in huge demand out of the gate, making a then-impressive $16.9 million in sales in 1964.

    Price in 1964: $4

    eBay price in 2010: $210

    Bet you didn’t know … The makers of G.I. Joe owe a lot to “Star Wars” for their longevity. The much derided 3 3/4-inch G.I. Joe figures released in 1982 were a huge hit, no doubt from kids used to collecting similarly sized “Star Wars” figures.

    Where are they now? The G.I. Joe franchise does well in times of peace and poorly in times of war. Sales suffered during the Vietnam War, but the doll made a comeback in the 1980s — and again after the release of last year’s live action “G.I. Joe” movie.

  • “Star Wars” action figures (1977)

    Darth Vader
    Juan Garcia  /  KRT/Newscom

    The hype: Whatever you think about his movies, George Lucas was a marketing genius. Since toymaker Kenner didn’t have time to manufacture more than a few coloring books and board games after the surprise success of “Star Wars,” Lucas still made millions selling vouchers for 3 3/4-inch tall action figures. Bright-eyed children on Christmas morning unwrapped something called an “Early Bird Certificate Package,” with information about the figures they would receive in a few months, but no actual toy. Original figures ranged from the obvious (Darth Vader) to the obscure (Death Star Commander).

    Price in 1977: $2.79

    eBay price in 2010: $3.99 to $1,200

    Bet you didn’t know … More than three decades later, two of the most valuable action figures are manufacturing screw-ups: a Luke Skywalker with brown hair and a Han Solo whose head is too small.

    Where are they now? “Star Wars” is arguably bigger than ever, with help from “The Clone Wars” cartoon series. Most of the 12 original figures have been re-released in a “Star Wars” classics line.

  • Cabbage Patch Kids (1983)

    Cabbage Patch Kid
    Jacques Chenet  /  Getty

    The hype: Up until this point, there had been fad toys, but people had mostly acted like members of a civilized society in their quest for them. That all ended in 1983, when Coleco’s Cabbage Patch Kids became a huge media-fueled hit, causing a mad scramble for the few million of pudgy-cheeked dolls that were produced before Christmas. Demand from children who wanted to “adopt” a doll led to adult fistfights and price gouging, with some Cabbage Patch Kids selling on the black market for 10 times their retail price. The fad got even bigger the next year; 18 million Cabbage Patch Kids were sold in 1984.

    Price in 1982: $25

    eBay price in 2010: $7.99 to $499

    Bet you didn’t know … One subsequent high-profile failure for the franchise was the Talking Cabbage Patch Kids, which used new technology that allowed more than one doll to converse with one another.

    Where are they now? Coleco went bankrupt in 1988, mostly because of failed video game and computer ventures. Cabbage Patch Kids are still sold by Play Around.

  • Transformers (1984)

    Anonymous  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The hype: This cartoon about warring factions of anthropomorphic robots from outer space was hugely popular, aided by a barrage of commercials containing one of the most insidious earworms in history (“Transformers! More than meets the eeeeeeye …”). Hasbro created a full line of toys, but demand quickly exceeded supply during the holiday season. After honing their retail-fu skills during the Cabbage Patch Kid craze, parents fought like Autobots and Decepticons for the remaining toys. Hasbro watched its shares rise from $23 to $60 in 1984. Hasbro shipped an estimated $80 million worth of Transformers for the year.

    Price in 1984: $2.99 to $27.99

    eBay price in 2010: $1.99 to $1,495

    Bet you didn’t know … Among the voice-over artists in the early cartoons and movies: Scatman Crothers and Marlon Brando.

    Where are they now? The toys never went away, but didn’t reach the A-list again until Michael Bay’s 2007 live action “Transformers” movie scored big.

  • Teddy Ruxpin (1985)

    Teddy Ruxpin bear, w. built-in microchip
    James Keyser  /  Getty

    The hype: If you couldn’t make a single friend in elementary school, your parents could buy you a Teddy Ruxpin. The brainchild on a Disney Imagineer named Ken Forsse, the talking bear and his friends were home versions of the animatronic puppets kids saw at theme parks and pizza parlors. Worlds of Wonder sold 800,000 Teddy Ruxpin dolls in 1985 — which were fetching double or triple their already steep price because of shortages around the holidays.

    Price in 1985: $68

    eBay price in 2010: 99 cents to $71

    Bet you didn’t know … Many of the first generation Teddy Ruxpins arrived with a glitch, speaking in a disturbing gibberish. Teddy Ruxpin was recalled the following year, with more than 12,000 returned as defective.

    Where are they now? Worlds of Wonder went bankrupt in 1988. Hong Kong-based Backpack Toys manufactures a relatively small number of Teddy Ruxpin accessories through 2010.

  • Tickle Me Elmo (1996)

    Tyco's Tickle Me Elmo doll, popular toy
    James Keyser  /  Getty

    The hype: Elmo had long since ousted Grover as the Alpha Male of “Sesame Street,” and was a steady merchandise boon for Tyco Toys and Children’s Television Workshop. But no one predicted the runaway success of Tickle Me Elmo, which is a close second to the Cabbage Patch Kids in the history of holiday hype. The injuries were plentiful (one store worker broke a rib during a stampede) and reports of 600 percent markups or more weren’t unusual. Faith in humanity was occasionally restored, too, with many reports of Tickle Me Elmos getting auctioned off for good causes.

    Price in 1996: $27.99

    eBay price in 2010: $9.60

    Bet you didn’t know … One later generation Tickle Me Elmo doll worked like a Willy Wonka golden ticket, programmed to tell the owner that they won a $200,000 prize.

    Where are they now? Mattel bought out Tyco and has kept the brand alive, most notably with the 2006 release Tickle Me Elmo Extreme, which moves so convincingly that it appeared to be possessed.

  • Beanie Babies (1996)

    Little Five Year Old Adam Kalina
    Bill Greenblatt  /  Getty Images

    The hype: If you were the parent of a small child in 1996, and had a hard time saying no to your kid, chances are good you spent hours going from store to store looking for Bongo the Monkey or Tusk the Walrus. Developed earlier in the 1990s, Beanie Babies were doing fine as a business — but became a huge phenomenon after salesman H. Ty Warner got the brilliant idea to “retire” some of his already successful babies, making them valuable on the collectible market. With consumers combing stores looking for the rare ones (and often settling for more common new Beanie Babies) during the holidays, the company ended 1996 with $250 million in sales.

    Price in 1964: $4.95

    eBay price in 2010: $4.99 (the rarest Beanie Babies go for as high as $5,000)

    Bet you didn’t know … Among the Beanie Baby tribute dolls were a Jerry Garcia tie-dyed bear, and a Diana tribute bear that was released after the Princess of Wales’ 1997 death.

    Where are they now? Beanie Babies have come and gone over the years, occasionally showing up in fast food kid meals or to promote a brand such as SpongeBob Squarepants.

  • Furby (1998)

    Furby
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images

    The hype: The Furby was like having a cross between a Teddy Ruxpin and a foreign exchange student in your home. The owl/hamster hybrid, which came in different shapes and colors, came out of the box speaking an unidentifiable language (“wee tee kah wah tee” = “sing me a song”) and slowly learned English. They were an early holiday phenomenon, hyped constantly on television newscasts. Tiger Electronics could only produce about 2 million — far fewer Furbys than children wanted — but came back to sell 14 million in 1999.

    Price in 1998: $35

    eBay price in 2010: $11.51

    Bet you didn’t know … The second-most searched Furby site on Google is www.phobe.com/furby, which shows the result of a customer’s autopsy he conducted on his “dead” toy.

    Where are they now? The original Furby was discontinued in 2000. An upgraded Furby that could carry on a conversation was produced from 2005-2007.

  • Nintendo Wii (2006)

    Wii
    Scott Barbour  /  Getty Images

    The hype: The Nintendo Wii had a cool new motion-sensing wand, but its graphics and family-friendly games looked quaint compared to the high-powered Xbox 360 (already one year old) and PlayStation 3. The U.S. media initially hyped the PS3, but by Christmas the Wii was a much harder system to find. Wii-hungry gamers waited in long lines at retail stores that were receiving only a few units each, and shortages continued throughout the following year. Nintendo sold about 3 million units worldwide by Christmas 2006, and another 17 million in 2007.

    Price in 2006: $249

    eBay price in 2010: $120

    Bet you didn’t know … Shortly after the console was released, Wii players started complaining about a variation of tennis elbow. Wii-itis has been written about both in the New England Journal of Medicine and WebMD.

    Where are they now? The Wii claims to hold a worldwide lead in sales over the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but will face a new challenge this year as both systems release their own motion-sensing game controller updates.

  • Zhu Zhu Pets (2009)

    Zhu Zhu Pet toy
    Mark Lennihan  /  AP

    The hype: The Zhu Zhu pets didn’t reach Cabbage Patch Kid or Tickle Me Elmo levels of consumer mayhem. Unlike many holiday toy makers of the past, Cepia LLC of China was able to ship millions of Zhu Zhu pets a few days before Christmas, no doubt averting several riots at Wal-Marts  throughout the country. Cepia estimated $70 million in sales in 2009, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Hopefully toy makers are starting to see a pattern here: while it’s impossible to predict the most-hyped toy of the season, it’s always good to invent something that will look cute when consumer reporters and anchors play with it on the morning TV news.

    Price in 2009: $10

    eBay price in 2010: $12

    Bet you didn’t know … A consumer group suggested that one of the pets, Mr. Squiggles, had a dangerously high level of the metal antimony. Cepia rejected the claim and sales of the Zhu Zhu Pets did not flag.

    Where are they now? Probably stuck under your couch. (Zhu Zhu pets and related accessories are still being manufactured.)

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.40%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.80%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.54%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 13.70%
13.70%
Cash Back Cards 17.66%
17.91%
Rewards Cards 17.05%
17.17%
Source: Bankrate.com