NEW YORK — Holiday shoppers were more than willing to spend during the holiday season, if they saw big discounts or were shopping online.
Sales rose 3.8 percent from last year for November and December combined, according to the National Retail Federation’s analysis of federal figures. That was a healthy gain in a season that kept merchants worried right up until Christmas as people held off on spending.
That caution and increased online shopping made the holiday less festive at the mall. Shoppers stayed away from many traditional destinations such as department stores and electronics stores.
The sales increase came in just shy of the trade group’s forecast of a 3.9 percent gain. It was better than the 3.5 percent increase in 2012 and the 3.3 percent average for the past 10 years.
“It was a knock-down, drag-out battle between retailers to see who could discount the most to generate the most traffic,” said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics LLC, a research firm.
For retailers, those discounts came directly from their profits. Many cut forecasts for the fourth quarter, and profits are expected to be the weakest since the second quarter of 2009, when the economy was coming out of the Great Recession.
Perkins estimated fourth-quarter profits will fall 0.7 percent from last year, the first decline since a 6.7 percent drop seen during the second quarter of 2009, according to his tally of 120 retailers.
January is already off to a slow start. Some stores such as Express Inc. and Lululemon Athleta said weak January sales are compounding their holiday-season woes. Express said it plans to continue heavy sales promotions, which it expects to last through the month.