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Holiday store traffic drops 15%, but that's not the whole story

Americans may not have hit the malls in droves this holiday season, but those who did, spent.

According to ShopperTrak, foot traffic at the nation's retailers fell 14.6 percent this holiday season compared to the year prior, though in-store sales rose 2.7 percent in November and December. ShopperTrak had forecast that brick-and-mortar sales would rise 2.4 percent over the holiday season so their measure of $265.9 billion spent was more than expected.

ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said growth in online shopping, and online browsing, means shoppers don't window shop in stores as much. Instead, they do it online.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, according to Martin. In 2007, shoppers made an average of 4.5 to five store visits per shopping trip. Now, they average three to 3.5 stores, but they go with the intent to buy.

"The stores are benefiting from fewer people." Martin told CNBC. "There's an automatic improvement in shopper-to-associate ratio. The people in the store are in there to buy. The retailers are getting higher conversion rates and higher average transaction sizes."

Still, retailers with larger physical footprints are starting to worry about the traffic drop-off.

What worked? Deals and procrastination.

All the hype surrounding Black Friday did bring shoppers into stores and the deals got them spending. ShopperTrak said Nov. 29 was in fact the strongest sales and traffic day of the season.

Shoppers move through a Best Buy store.
Getty Images
Shoppers move through a Best Buy store.

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But after all that shopping on Black Friday, shoppers took a longer-than-normal break in early December, then finished the season strong, Martin said.

Strongest shopping days

Last-minute shoppers made Dec. 21 and Dec. 23 the second- and third-strongest sales days behind Black Friday. Dec. 20 through Dec. 24 accounted for more than 14 percent of holiday sales and 14.5 percent of store traffic during the holiday shopping season.

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Further, the week ended Dec. 28 accounted for four of the top 10 sales and traffic days, or 15.5 percent of sales and 16 percent of traffic for the season, and most retailers were closed for Christmas Day making it a six-day shopping week.

By category and region

ShopperTrak said electronics and wireless stores saw the biggest year-over-year increase, up nearly 5 percent. However, these stores saw took the hardest hit to foot traffic, falling off nearly 13 percent.

The apparel and accessories category, however, saw traffic drop just 0.6 percent and sales rise 3.5 percent for the season.

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The West fared better than other regions with sales up the most at 5.1 percent and the smallest drop-off in traffic, though traffic was still down 12.1 percent year over year. The Northeast saw the smallest sales gain and the second-biggest traffic drop-off at nearly 16 percent fewer shoppers hitting the stores this season over last.

Online impact

Severe weather in significant portions of the country during the first two weekends in December hit retail traffic hard, and further compressing the already shorter-than-normal season for shoppers. While ShopperTrak doesn't keep data for online sales, Martin said he expects the weather pushed consumers online in December.

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"Retailers who deliver a seamless customer experience both in the store and across all channels will emerge ahead of the rest," Martin said.

Martin said a retailer like Gap, which meets that criteria, saw both in-store and online sales grow, and those are revenue improvements, regardless of the channel.

While online sales growth gets all the attention, more than 90 percent of all retail purchases are made in a brick-and-mortar stores, according to ShopperTrak.

But the ShopperTrak founder also said the in-store holiday sales are the highest on record and all signs point to online holiday sales hitting all-time highs as well.

"The retail story is not as bad as people think it is."

—By CNBC's Courtney Reagan. Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan.

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