Twenty retailers reported that revenue at stores open at least a year - an indicator of a store's health - rose an average of 4.5 percent in December compared with the same month a year ago, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
That's on the high end of the expected range of 4 percent to 4.5 percent. Only a small group of stores that represent about 13 percent of the $2.4 trillion U.S. retail industry report monthly revenue, but the data offer a snapshot of consumer spending.
"I wouldn't be doing cartwheels that it was a particularly great or strong holiday season, but it could have been worse, given the headwinds," said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, a research firm. "The government and Mother Nature were not as cooperative as retailers would have liked. But it was definitely not as bad as feared."
December's results provide a brighter picture than reports last month that proclaimed that the holiday shopping season was shaping up to be the worst since 2008, when the United States was in a deep recession.
To be sure, the season had multiple fits and starts, with healthy spending during certain periods followed by stretches of tepid sales. Overall, revenue for the combined months of November and December rose 3.1 percent, roughly on par with the 3 percent rise that the International Council of Shopping Centers had predicted.
Sales were weak at the beginning of November as a result of Hurricane Sandy and the distraction of the U.S. presidential campaign, followed by a surge later in the month during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend. Spending fell off after that until a rush before and after Christmas, when some stores began offering bigger discounts.
Nordstrom, for instance, had a particularly strong December, with revenue at stores open at least a year up 8.6 percent, more than double the 3.4 percent analysts expected.