Holiday shoppers bought a little more jewelry, electronics and boots but passed by the women's clothing racks, according to figures released Wednesday.
The latest figures from MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse also offered confirmation that shoppers were deliberate in their spending. The data service tracks all forms of payment, including cash.
Still, retailers are feeling somewhat encouraged, entering 2010 with fewer clearance racks and expecting fourth-quarter profits to improve compared with last year, when many lost money.
"It was a holiday season of modest sales gains but healthy profits," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "The question is, what kind of momentum do we have in the next few weeks? There is no reason for shoppers to buy."
Niemira estimates that his index of sales at stores open at least a year for December will rise 2.5 percent, following a disappointing 0.2 percent decline in November. The index is based on sales at stores open at least a year, considered a key indicator of a retailer's health.
The index excludes sales results from Wal-Mart Stores, the world's largest retailer, which no longer releases monthly results.
Analysts say discounters and wholesale club operators such as Costco Wholesale and TJX will emerge as the holiday winners, while many apparel stores are likely to suffer sales declines.
The worst December performers are expected to be teen merchants, particularly pricier stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch as parents have cut spending even on their children.
Among the exceptions are Limited Brands, which operates Victoria's Secret, and Aeropostale, which offers teen clothing that's less expensive than A&F.
SpendingPulse had said on Dec. 28 that retail sales rose 3.6 percent from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, compared with a 2.3 percent drop in the year-ago period. Adjusting for an extra shopping day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the number was closer to a 1 percent gain. Holiday figures through Dec. 31 were not provided.
Sectors that saw improved sales from Nov. 29 through Saturday, compared with a year ago, according to SpendingPulse:
Doing less well were clothing sales, which fell 1.8 percent from Nov. 29 through Saturday compared with a year ago. The category was down 6.7 percent for the year.
However, men's apparel fared much better than women's. Men's apparel sales rose 2.6 percent from Nov. 29 through Saturday. In contrast, women's apparel sales fell 2.8 percent.