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Photo finish in 2005 shopping race
Analysts are confident that retailers saw a fair but not spectacular 2005 holiday season.
By Parija Bhatnagar, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com ) - This year's shopping season started with a bang, then quickly fizzled into a slow and boring drag before staging an impressive pick-up just shy of the finish line.

But was the last-minute sales surge enough to allow retailers to blow past their holiday sales expectations or was it too little too late?

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Piper Jaffray analyst Jeff Kleinfelter thinks it will come down to the wire.

"Similar to November, we believe the 'back-end loaded' nature of December will be particularly pronounced this year, as Hanukkah falls two weeks later than it did last year," he wrote in a research note Tuesday.

In addition, he pointed out that strong gift card sales should set up retailers for a "solid" January.

"We believe gift card sales are running up 15 to 20 percent, or higher, for most retailers during [this] holiday season," he wrote. "Gift cards [don't] count toward sales until the time of redemption and, as such, we expect many retailers to report strong comparable sales trends the fifth week of December and throughout January."

The retail industry's own National Retail Federation (NRF) forecast is for November-December combined sales to grow 6 percent to $439.5 billion, softer than last year's 6.7 percent increase.

NRF spokesman Scott Krugman said the trade group expects to release its final holiday sales report in early January.

Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research with the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), had forecast retailers' holiday sales at stores open at least a year -- a key retail measure known as same-store sales -- to increase between 3 to 3.5 percent.

Niemira said he's not revising his forecast up or down, yet.

"We still have a little more in the month to go but this week could really provide the icing on the cake," Niemira said. "If there is a bias to the upside of our forecast, it will depend on this week."

Strong but not stellar

At least one early report out Tuesday estimates that the pre-Christmas sales burst helped propel holiday sales to a solid 8.7 percent increase versus last year.

However, if the numbers are adjusted for the extra shopping days consumers got this year -- with Christmas Eve falling on a Saturday -- the picture doesn't look so rosy anymore.

Michael McNamara, vice president of research with MasterCard Advisors, said adjusted figures indicate that total holiday sales this year actually rose 5.2 percent, while holiday sales last year rose 8.1 percent over 2003.

"An apple to apple comparison shows that last year was clearly a much stronger year," McNamara said.

According to SpendingPulse, a retail-sales data provider from MasterCard International's MasterCard Advisors unit, strong demand for consumer electronics such as Apple's iPod, Microsoft's Xbox, more affordable flatscreen TVs and MP3 players fueled much of the gain as well as home furnishings, clothing and sporting goods.

But jewelry sales were tarnished, slipping 4.6 percent during this critical two-month gift-buying period that typically accounts for as much as 50 percent of some retailers annual profits and sales.

The SpendingPulse report is based on aggregated purchases made using debit and credit cards as well as an estimate of all other forms of payment, including cash and checks.

Michael McNamara, said the season was "solid" but not "spectacular" for retailers, citing the 30 days this year versus the 29 days in the 2004 holiday season.

But NRF's Krugman said the trade group is confident that the final tally will be a "pleasant surprise for a lot of people."

"We are seeing some conflicting reports right now. But at the end of the day, this was the same pattern as last year," he said. "Consumer spending has been up more than anticipated going into the holidays. This leads us to believe that we'll have a strong holiday season. At the same time, things can change early next year and it wouldn't surprise me to see a slowdown in spending."

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