NEW YORK - A last-minute shopping surge helped holiday sales wrap up better than expected, according to one measure. But stores had to discount heavily to lure shoppers.
ShopperTrak, which tracks data at 40,000 stores in the U.S., said that sales for the November and December months combined rose 2.7 percent to $265.9 billion. That was better than the data service's 2.4 percent forecast for the season, but below the 3.0 percent gain in 2012.
The number of customers in stores dropped 14.6 percent from last year for November and December combined.
After a decent performance in November, sales at stores had been weak for most of December as shoppers held back for the best deals in a still challenging economy. Stores were also challenged by a season that was six days shorter than a year ago.
That put more pressure on stores for the last few days before Christmas. Merchants had been aggressive with discounting as early as late October but many stepped up price-cutting more than planned in the final days before Christmas.
"It was a lackluster season, but not devastating," said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak. "Stores had to go into deep discounting after the softness they saw."
In fact, the week ended Dec. 28 accounted for 15.5 percent of sales and 16 percent of all traffic for the holiday season. That compares with 10.9 percent of last year's holiday season sales and 11.5 percent of last year's traffic.
The numbers do not include online sales, which have been a bright spot for merchants but also faced some challenges.
Holiday shopping online rose 10 percent to $46.5 billion in November and December, the research firm comScore announced las Monday.
That was lower than the 14 percent growth expected as shoppers showed reluctance to spend freely and faced a shorter holiday season this year.