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NEW YORK-A late pre-Christmas surge in spending propelled the ICSC-UBS Retail Chain Store Sales Index up by 2.7% in the final shopping week before Christmas, compared with the prior week. That was the strongest weekly gain since Dec. 22, 2001, which saw a 2.9% increase.

“Although holiday sales were slow and uneven for most of the season, last-minute shoppers were out in force last week,” said Michael Niemira, ICSC’s chief economist and director of research. “As a result of this last-minute surge, we expect December comp-store sales will increase by 3.0% to 3.5% on a year-over-year basis.”

According to the ICSC-UBS ongoing holiday shopping survey, a third of consumers were shopping later this year than last, which resulted in a more intense holiday gift-buying crunch for last-minute shoppers. The weekly sales index also rose by 4.3% on a year-over-year basis, which was the strongest showing since July 3, 2004, which was up 4.4% that week.

Overall, based on the ICSC tally of major retailers, the two-month holiday season (November and December combined) appears to be on track for a 2.5% to 3.0% gain, according to Niemira. The ICSC-UBS Weekly U.S. Retail Chain Store Sales Index measures comp-store sales, excluding restaurant and vehicle demand, and is benchmarked to a broad-based monthly retail industry sales aggregate representing about 75 retail chain stores, which also is compiled by ICSC.

Such aggregates don’t describe individual retailers, however, whose results this year show some variation. For example, among the discount retail giants, Wal-Mart said early this week that its December comp-store sales are tracking at the midpoint of a projected 1% to 3% increase, something of a improvement over its pallid November comps, but not as strong as Target’s projected 3% to 5% increase in comp-store sales for the month.

Separately, the ICSC and UBS reported that almost three-quarters of consumers used currency and “cash-equivalents” as the main method of payment for gifts bought during this holiday season. Cash itself was the number-one method of payment for holiday gifts this year, with 40% of consumers paying that way. Fifty-three percent of those aged 18-34 years old used cash, while 37% of those 35 and older did the same. Other “cash equivalents” were also popular means of paying for holiday gifts, with 19% opting for their debit cards and 11% using checks.

Another 26% of consumers chose credit cards as their primary means of paying for holiday gifts. But 21% of those consumers, or four out of every five of the credit-card users, expect to pay off the bill when it arrives, while only 5% of consumers will pay when they can.

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