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Area merchants upbeat about Christmas revenue

For the first time in two years, something other than desperation seems to be emanating from cash registers as the all-important Christmas shopping season heads toward a close.

For the first time in two years, something other than desperation seems to be emanating from cash registers as the all-important Christmas shopping season heads toward a close.

Business, merchants say, was better this year than last year - and better than the infamous year before that, when the crumbling stock market stunned shoppers and gave retailers a double holiday beating.

Indeed, on Tuesday, local merchants echoed something akin to pleasant surprise as they sized up holiday receipts, parroting data from earlier in the week suggesting that holiday sales were stronger than they had been in some time.

"We had a very good holiday season," said Gary Boyer, senior vice president and director of stores for Boscov's, based in Reading. "We're very pleased about our results from the sales and profitability standpoint. We had a very good fourth quarter, even though it's not over.

"We still have another month to go. We're optimistic that we're still going to close the season strong."

With a nod to Philadelphia's head-turning football and baseball teams, he added: "We thank the Eagles and the Phillies; we sold a lot of Eagles merchandise and Phillies merchandise."

Whether from the 39-store Boscov's chain or from small boutiques such as El Quetzal, with gift shops on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill and at Suburban Square in Ardmore, reports this week from retailers were relatively positive. Even the day-after-Christmas snowstorm seemed a surmountable obstacle as optimism prevailed.

El Quetzal owner-partner Bill Shields said: "2010 looks good. We did better than the last two years."

At the King of Prussia mall, the sentiment from a sampling of its 400 department stores, specialty retailers, and food court and restaurant operators was that business was good, marketing manager Kathy Smith said.

"Of course, we haven't surveyed all 400, but we try to take a good cross-section of all categories and all sizes, and both national and local retailers," Smith said. "The sense that we're getting is that they've had a very good holiday season and they are happy."

It's too soon to know for sure how much consumers spent. Most retailers don't close out their quarterly receipts until January. And though the retail data this week were promising, they clashed with subsequent foreboding economic data, muddying efforts at a clear snapshot of consumer activity.

Figures from MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse showed that spending before Christmas rose 5.5 percent, an increase over the same period a year ago. The International Council of Shopping Centers, meanwhile, said chain-store sales were up 4.8 percent the week that ended Saturday.

And yet housing-price declines were reported Tuesday, as was a decline in consumer confidence, prompting local economist Joel Naroff to proclaim: "People are saying they are still worried but acting differently, as they have hit the malls pretty hard."

No one is expecting a record-breaking return to the kind of spending that preceded the economic crisis of 2008. Unemployment remains high, and consumers are still reluctant to spend what they don't have.

But even with the snowstorm the day after Christmas, which shut down some East Coast malls (including King of Prussia) early Sunday, as well as some department stores (three Boscov's in South Jersey), shoppers kept at it.

"The week between Christmas and New Year's is generally one of the best weeks of the year," said Smith, of the King of Prussia mall. "From what we've seen from a traffic perspective and heard from retail managers, the people are here. The sales are here."

Boscov's took a hit by shutting its Vineland, Atlantic City, and Toms River stores early Sunday, Boyer said. "However, the total for our company on Sunday, we still did well."