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Strong Start to Holiday Fueled by Online, Apparel Sales

The holiday shopping season is off to a "solid start" across most retail categories, according to a report released on Wednesday that offers some hope that consumer spending is starting to bounce back.

Shoppers take a break at the Baybrook Mall in Friendswood, Texas.
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Shoppers take a break at the Baybrook Mall in Friendswood, Texas.

The retail sales growth in November, which includes the crucial Black Friday weekend sales, was particularly strong for apparel and for online sales, according to research from MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which estimates total retail sales across all payment forms.

"Household wallets are pointing a little bit more toward retail," said Michael McNamara, MasterCard's vice president, Research and Analysis.

No doubt strong promotions—some offered as early as Halloween—helped to encourage consumers to shop. Retailers such as Sears Holdings advertised Black Friday-style doorbuster deals each weekend of the month. Store hours were extended for the Thanksgiving weekend, and retailers made a big push online around Cyber Monday, with some—including Wal-Mart Stores and Target —extending those discounts for an entire week.

McNamara was encouraged by a 9.6 percent gain in apparel sales, which was fueled by a 3.9 percent increase in sales of women's clothing and a 7.2 percent gain for men's apparel.

This was the second month in a row that women's apparel sales recorded a gain, and the increase in men's apparel reversed a sales decline in October.

Consumer Nation - Holiday Central Edition - See Complete Coverage
Consumer Nation - Holiday Central Edition - See Complete Coverage

The women's category is likely benefiting from some pent-up demand, McNamara said. Women's apparel retailers have suffered with anemic sales for the past two years as women tend to cut back spending on themselves when times get tough. Seeing some signs of life in this important category is an encouraging sign that consumer spending could be picking up.

The growth in online sales accelerated in the latest month, rising 12 percent from the year-ago period, according to SpendingPulse.

"Online sales have just been killing it this year," McNamara said.

Sales of furniture rose 2.8 percent, which was the best showing for that category in quite some time. Sales of luxury items rose 1.6 percent, but the overall electronics category fell 1 percent, hurt by sharp price declines of popular electronics items such as LCD televisions.

According to McNamara, television prices have fallen between 10 to 15 percent from last year, and it is difficult to offset such steep price declines.

Still, the sales trends in November were generally positive.

"When you take a step back and see the bigger picture, it is turning into a pretty solid season in most areas," he said.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com

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