A weak economy and strong winter storms brought total retail sales down between 5.5 and 8 percent from a year ago, according to preliminary data from SpendingPulse.

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NEW YORK — It’s official: This was a rotten holiday season for retailers.

A weak economy and strong winter storms brought total retail sales down between 5.5 and 8 percent from a year ago, according to preliminary data from SpendingPulse.

Many economists have predicted this would be the worst holiday season in decades as home prices plunged, unemployment rose and nervous consumers cut costs. Compounding retailers’ problems were unexpected winter storms that snowed-in would-be shoppers everywhere from Seattle to Las Vegas to Boston.

When gas and auto sales are excluded from the holiday period from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24, overall sales were down somewhere between 2 and 4 percent, according to SpendingPulse, a division of MasterCard Advisors that tracks total sales paid for by credit card, checks and cash.

A separate measure of holiday spending, from the International Council of Shopping Centers, is expected to fall 1.5 to 2 percent from last year, making this the worst season since 1969. A full picture of the season won’t be known until Jan. 8, when major retailers report their sales results.

Food sales were strong, while clothing sales — especially the most expensive clothing — were dismal, SpendingPulse said.

Sales of women’s clothing dropped 22.7 percent, according to SpendingPulse. Men’s clothing sales dropped 14.3 percent and footwear sales fell 13.5 percent.

Total sales of luxury goods — defined as the highest priced tenth of jewelry, clothing and leather goods — fell 34.5 percent.

Sales of electronics and appliances were down 26.7 percent.

Purchases over the Internet fared better, with a 2.3 percent decline. E-commerce may have been helped by inclement weather at the end of the holiday-shopping season, said Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis at SpendingPulse. Historically Web sales have posted 15 to 20 percent year-over-year sales gains.

“Overall this has been one of the most challenging holiday seasons on record,” McNamara said.

The SpendingPulse data service calculates its sales estimates based on MasterCard network transactions and adjusts for cash, checks and other payment forms.

Information from Bloomberg News is included in this report.