Last-minute shoppers gave merchants a solid lift during the final week before Christmas, a mall trade group said Wednesday.
Shoppers gave retailers a 4.5 percent increase in revenue at stores open at least a year for the week ended Saturday compared with the same week last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Store Sales Index.
Gift buyers gained steam in as the season went on. The store revenue figure rose 0.9 percent last week from the week before, building on a 3.4 percent increase the week before that.
"The downs and ups were much more accentuated," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the trade group. "It just shows how cautious the consumer is. Consumers are bargain hunters more today than ever before."
The index seeks to estimate sales at 24 major stores including Macy's Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. Revenue at stores open at least a year is an important measurement of a retailer's performance because it excludes the effects of stores that open or close during the year.
For the week ended on Nov. 26, which included the traditional start of the holiday shopping season on the day after Thanksgiving, stores had the biggest sales surge from the week before since 1993, according to the ICSC-Goldman Sachs index. The two weeks after that showed the biggest percentage decline since 2000. Then, during the final two weeks before Christmas, sales surged again, by the highest rate since 2005, Niemira said.
"The holiday season was good but uneven," Niemira said.
Stores are expected to benefit when shoppers come back to spend their gift cards, because people often spend more than the cards' value. In addition, gift card sales are only recorded when shoppers redeem them.
People have more money on their cards to spend. According to an ICSC-Goldman Sachs survey of shoppers conducted Sunday, 18 percent of holiday spending went toward gift cards, up from 14.6 percent last year.
ICSC said it expects holiday sales for November and December to rise in line with its forecast of 3.5 percent.
A fuller holiday spending picture will come Jan. 5, when stores including Target Corp. and Macy's will release December sales figures.