Will the divided recovery hurt holiday sales?

Recovery is bifurcated, economy has to grow: NRF CEO

Despite a sluggish economy, the head of the National Retail Federation said Friday he expects a strong holiday shopping season—but sales could be better if the economic recovery was more widespread.

"The macro factors, in a lot of ways, look pretty good with the stock market and home prices and gas prices, but the economic headwinds are still tough," federation CEO Matthew Shay told CNBC's "Closing Bell." "We expect it's going to be a very promotional but very solid holiday season."

(Read more: Forget Thanksgiving—let's shop!)

But retail sales and forecasts for the holiday season would be far better off if the economic recovery wasn't so split, he said. While it is coming along nicely for those at higher income levels, those in the bottom half continue to struggle with headwinds that include expiration of the payroll tax cut, and uncertainties stemming from the Washington gridlock and Obamacare.

"Over the long term, what's really got to happen is we have to get our economy growing. We can't just redivide the size of an existing pie," Shay said. "We've got to make that pie bigger and do some things here in Washington to get people back to work and get businesses investing again."

(Read more: Wal-Mart joins the Thanksgiving rush)

Nearly 25 percent of people intend to shop Thanksgiving Day, according to a recent survey conducted by the NRF. About 70 percent of respondents said they plan to shop on Black Friday. The survey found 140 million people will shop over the holiday weekend, versus 147 million last year.

What's set to be the big seller this year? Shay told "Closing Bell" he expects vigorous sales of electronics, especially new gaming consoles and TVs.

By CNBC's Drew Sandholm. Follow him on Twitter @DrewSandholm

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