As the 2004 holiday shopping season wound to a close, Los Angeles-area retailers were projected to have fared better than those in other parts of the country, thanks in part to a strong local economy.

The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. estimated that taxable retail sales for L.A. County came close to its projected 5 percent to 6 percent increase compared to November and December of last year. For the five-county area, which includes Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the LAEDC expected sales will approach a projected 8 percent increase.

At the same time, several organizations reduced national sales projections for the holiday season, including the International Council of Shopping Centers, which said it same-store sales for November and December would likely increase 2.5 percent to 3 percent compared to the same period in 2003, down from original estimates of a 3 percent to 4 percent gain. Deloitte & Touche said its same-store sales projection of a 4.5 percent to 5 percent increase also appeared too high.

The LAEDC's estimates differ because they do not focus strictly on same-store sales growth and measure all taxable retail sales, including automotive.

"It was a very strange rhythm to the holiday season," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the LAEDC. "We had a barn-burner of a Black Friday, then business softened, then moderated, then last week everyone woke up and realized Christmas was around the corner and the malls were very busy."

Sunday was also a strong day for local malls, said Kyser, although it is not yet known if sales were buoyed by bargain-hunters or those redeeming gift cards.

Not only did L.A. escape the bad weather experienced in the East, but it also benefited from population growth and job gains in industries like travel and tourism, air transportation, international trade, aerospace and film, Kyser said.

"For years, we've lagged the rest of the nation in terms of recovery from recessions and those sorts of things," said Richard Giss, a partner at Deloitte & Touche in Los Angeles, who also expected L.A. retailers to experience sales that are as good as or better than the rest of the country. "Right now, we don't have anything holding our area down."

Luxury sales were particularly strong as increasing gas prices and rising interest rates had less of an impact on high-end consumers, and this was also a record year for gift cards, said Giss. Department stores were projected to have moderate gains, while specialty stores experienced mixed results for the holidays.

"Consumers were obviously going for luxury and they didn't blink an eye at the prices they were asked to pay," said Giss, noting that the action was likely a combination of holiday bonuses and baby boomers who decided to buy themselves expensive gifts.

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