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Holiday retail sales up, but experts wary

Reports released Thursday showed that holiday retail sales rose higher than expected and December retail revenues hit a monthly record for 2011, but local industry experts were cautious in their assessments of the season.

"We've got a good holiday, but consumers are tapped out," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, a Port Washington market research firm. "This period is a little more than one-twelfth of the year but represents 20 to 25 percent of business for the year. What are we going to do to keep that momentum going forward?"

The National Retail Federation said holiday retail sales for the months of November and December increased 4.1 percent from last year, beating its forecast of a 3.8 percent rise. December sales, excluding automobiles, gas stations and restaurants, also increased 4.1 percent from the same period last year, the organization said.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's report showed December retail sales -- including automobiles, gas stations and restaurants -- rose 0.1 percent from November and 6.5 percent from December 2010 to a record $400.6 billion. For all of 2011, retail sales totaled a record $4.7 trillion, a gain of nearly 8 percent over 2010 and the largest percentage increase since 1999, according to The Associated Press.

Long Island gift shop owner Marilyn Schulman said the national figures mirrored holiday sales at the Willy Nilly Trading Co. in Bay Shore. Shopping in the final days before Christmas pushed initially flat December sales up 6 percent and overall holiday sales -- between Black Friday and Dec. 31 -- up 5.3 percent from the same periods last year, she said.

"Early November was sluggish and so was October, so we were worried," Schulman said. "So December was such a surprise and it was all in that last week" before Christmas.

Long Island's savvy consumers used the Internet to find discounts and coupons, and after-Christmas reports noted that returns were up, said Julie Marchesella, first vice president of the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce.

"That tells me that people are so unsure of the economy," she said. She added, "You want to make sure that everything you got is going to be useful."

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