Shoppers spent only 3 percent more during the 2012 holiday season than they did a year earlier, the National Retail Federation said on Tuesday, citing economic uncertainty for tempering consumers' enthusiasm.
The NRF's data, based on U.S. government figures, fell short of the trade group's own forecast, which called for a 4.1 percent jump. In 2011, such sales rose a stronger 5.6 percent. The NRF looks at U.S. sales from November and December excluding automobiles, gasoline stations and restaurants.
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After a strong showing over the Thanksgiving weekend in late November, when many consumers start their Christmas shopping, their willingness to spend was dented by concerns about the sluggish pace of job recovery and the possibility of higher taxes.
"The larger impact is simply the fact that the economy has been growing slowly, employment has been growing slowly and consumers are still in a deleveraging mode," said Ira Kalish, Director of global economics at Deloitte Research, noting that many Americans are giving priority to paying down their debt.
Total spending during the holiday season rose to $579.8 billion, the NRF said.
Non-store sales, which are mostly online, rose 11.1 percent. The group had forecast online sales growth of 12 percent. Non-store sales were not included in the 3 percent figure.
The NRF will issue its 2013 forecast next week. Many analysts and economists are not expecting a big jump, with consumption likely to be curbed by the recent 2 percentage point increase in payroll taxes that is leaving consumers with less money in their paychecks.
"Heading into 2013, consumers could continue to think twice about their discretionary purchases as they face decreases in their paychecks and other concerns with their household budgets," said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.
The trade group also called on U.S. lawmakers to put their differences aside and work on improving the level of employment. The U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.8 percent.
Earlier on Tuesday, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that its broader measure of U.S. retail sales rose 0.5 percent in December, after rising 0.4 percent in November. That was better than the 0.2 percent increase expected by economists polled by Reuters.
(Reporting by Phil Wahba and Jessica Wohl in New York; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Tim Dobbyn)