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Retail landscape looking up

After holiday sales predictions across the industry ranged from down a percentage point to up nearly two points, the official word is in from the National Retail Federation: sales were up 1.1 percent this season.

Phew!

The numbers are preliminary, but NRF estimates that sales during November and December totaled $446.8 billion, surpassing the association’s projected decline of 1 percent.

NRF’s numbers do not include automobiles, gas stations or restaurants … which would surely paint a different landscape if thrown in there. Typically, NRF separates dining and the auto industry from its retail tallies.

In the months leading up to the holiday season, the name of the game for retailers was inventory — being cautious and not being stuck with too much at year’s end.

“With an eye on managing inventory and maintaining lower price points, retailers did a tremendous job of planning for the holiday season,” NRF Chief Economist Rosalind Wells said in a statement. “While the consumer appears to be spending again, double digit unemployment numbers will remain an impediment to maintaining this momentum.”

Apparel was a star for retailers this year as clothing and clothing accessories drove sales in December and increased 7 percent compared with the prior year. Sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores also performed well with December sales increasing 3.9 percent from last year and health and personal care stores increased 4.8 percent, according to the NRF.

The weak housing market, however, damped some categories — furniture and home furnishing store sales decreased 3.5 percent during December 2009.