NEW YORK - A late spending surge helped boost sales last week for many merchants, according to data released Monday, offering relief to retailers in a holiday season that is still projected to be only modestly better than a year ago.
In ternet sales and consumer electronics were the winners, both rising strongly from a year ago, but sales at department stores and toy stores fell.
Unlike a year ago, when last-minute spending was insufficient to help retailers meet their holiday goals, this year’s finale was strong enough to offset December’s earlier weakness, according to Michael P. Niemira, chief economist and director of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers.
‘‘I’m much more upbeat than I was a week ago,’’ said Niemira, who also serves as a consultant at ShopperTrak, which will release on Tuesday data showing sales through this past Saturday. ‘‘The surge was late, but it was enough to save the season.’’
ShopperTrak tallies total sales at 30,000 retail outlets.
‘‘The worry level was high, but sales came through — but not evenly,’’ Niemira said. He added that the day after Christmas, which starts the post-holiday sales, was much stronger than a year ago.
Niemira believes that overall same-store sales growth is on track to meet his forecast of 4 percent for the November-December period, reduced earlier in the season from 4.5 percent. That’s on top of a meager 0.5 percent gain during holiday 2002 from the previous year.
Same-store sales growth, or sales at stores opened at least a year, are considered the best indicator of a retailer’s health.
While modest — given that stores hoped to benefit more from a recovering economy — the expected gain will still be the biggest since 1999, when Niemira’s tally posted a 5.4 percent increase.
Late Monday, Target Corp., which had been tracking same-store sales growth below projections for December, said that sales for the week ended Saturday beat expectations. That helped boost sales at its namesake discount division to the low end of forecasts for the month. For the overall corporation, which includes the Marshall Field’s and Mervyn’s stores, sales are still below projections.
On Monday, MasterCard Advisors, a unit of MasterCard International, said that total sales were up 6.5 percent from Nov. 28 through Dec. 24, compared with a year ago. The figures were adjusted to reflect the extra day this holiday season.
Internet and catalog sales rose 6.5 percent, MasterCard Advisors said, while consumer electronics and appliance store sales were up 6.7 percent. Sales at home furnishing stores increased 3.9 percent. But apparel stores were up only 1.65 percent, department store sales fell 1.4 percent and sales at toy stores declined 7.7 percent. Visa USA said Monday that total U.S. spending on Visa debit and credit cards from Nov. 28 through Sunday increased 14.2 percent over the same period of 2002. The total amount spent on Visa cards during the holiday season reached nearly $100 billion.
Phil Kowalczyk, managing director of the retail consulting group Kurt Salmon Associates, said he is still sticking to his forecast for total holiday sales, excluding restaurants, to be up 3.5 percent.
‘‘This holiday season was solid, and it was better than last year, but it wasn’t the euphoria people were expecting,’’ he said. ‘‘Not everybody got gifts from Santa.’’
He estimated that stores likely sold anywhere from 4 percent to 5 percent more items than a year ago, but lower prices than last year on goods such as DVD players and more planned promotions dampened overall sales revenue.