Retail stocks were pummeled across the board yesterday after a late shopping surge apparently failed to salvage the slowest-growing holiday sales season in five years.

Sales last week rose a slim 2.8 percent compared with the same week last year, the International Council of Shopping Centers and UBS Securities L.L.C. said in a joint statement yesterday.

That prompted them to lower their forecast for combined November and December sales growth to "a tad below" the 2.5 percent they had been predicting. Their figures are for sales at stores open at least a year, a key industry yardstick.

"This consumer is spent out," Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a New York retail consultant, said in an interview.

Estimates varied on how the final figures for the season will come out. For example, the National Retail Federation said industrywide sales in November and December this year might rise 4 percent - but that still would be the slowest growth since 2002.

ShopperTrak RCT Corp. predicted a 3.6 percent increase.

MasterCard Inc.'s consulting unit said on Christmas Day that sales from Nov. 23 to Dec. 24 gained 3.6 percent, the lowest rise in at least three years.

The preliminary results - official tallies will be released next week by major retailers and by the government later in January - were dim even with solid sales over the weekend. Shoppers making last-minute purchases pushed sales up almost 20 percent over the weekend compared with the final shopping weekend in 2006, according to ShopperTrak.

"Given the slow performance at the beginning of the month, it appears that the industry is on track for a sales gain that is slightly under our original expectation," Michael Niemira, the International Council of Shopping Centers' chief economist, said.

Consumers burdened by higher gasoline and food prices and a deepening housing slump held off on buying gifts for much of December as they awaited steeper discounts. That had sent sales lower for the four preceding weeks compared with the same weeks last year, ShopperTrak said.

The Standard and Poor's 500 Retailing Index lost 1.2 percent, with 28 of the 31 members declining. The only gainers were Amazon. com Inc., Expedia Inc. and Best Buy Co. Inc.

Target Corp., the second-biggest U.S. discounter, warned Monday that sales at stores open more than a year might decline in December after customer visits slowed in the weeks after Thanksgiving. Its shares fell $1.31 yesterday to close at $51.16 in New York Stock Exchange trading.

Macy's Inc. declined $1.06 to close at $25.95.

Though consumers limited purchases of holiday gifts, the nation will avoid a recession next year as a "stable" job market keeps Americans spending amid falling home prices and higher fuel costs, the Bear Stearns Cos. Inc. chief investment strategist Jonathan Golub said yesterday.

"We do not believe a consumer-led recession is in the cards," Golub said.

In fact,, the world's largest online retailer, said the 2007 holiday season was its "best ever."

The company did not provide specific profit and sales figures. The busiest day was Dec. 10, when customers ordered more than 5.4 million items, Seattle-based said yesterday.

Retailers began cutting yesterday to clear out merchandise left over.

Bloomingdale's, owned by Macy's, offered as much as 75 percent off men's clothes, and closely held Lord & Taylor L.L.C. advertised half-off prices for children's coats.

"If you were expecting this holiday season to stimulate a new ramp-up in growth, I think you'd be disappointed," said Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at MasterCard Advisors L.L.C. "I think the vast majority of people in the marketplace had modest expectations."

Apparel sales rose 1.4 percent from a year ago, McNamara said. Men's clothing climbed 2.3 percent, while clothes for women fell 2.4 percent.

Luxury goods, excluding jewelry, rose 7.1 percent compared with the same period last year, and footwear sales increased 6 percent.

Last year's holiday season grew 6.6 percent over 2005's holidays. Two years ago, retail sales grew 8 percent from the previous year, MasterCard said.

A Falling Tide

Shares of most U.S. retailers fell yesterday on reports of sluggish 2007 holiday sales gains. Select retailers, in order of percentage change.

Regionally based       Price change    % change

Bon-Ton                   -$1.09           -9.26

Jones New York              -0.46           -2.73

Mothers Work              -0.25           -1.44

A.C. Moore                 -0.01           -0.08

Charming Shoppes           0                 0

Urban Outfitters              +0.32           +1.17

National                  Price   change    % change

J.C. Penney                 -1.40             -3.05

Nordstrom                    -1.11             -2.95

Kohl's                        -1.15           -2.48

Sears                        -1.68           -1.60

Wal-Mart                       -0.36             -0.74

SOURCE: Bloomberg News