Area retailers appear to have had a better holiday shopping season than those in other parts of the country.

The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. estimated that taxable retail sales for L.A. County came close to the 5 percent to 6 percent year-over-year increase it projected before Thanksgiving. For the five-county area, which includes Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the LAEDC's expected sales will approach a projected 8 percent increase.

L.A.'s strength, which included a strong showing among higher-end merchants, came as several groups reduced their national seasonal sales projections. One, the International Council of Shopping Centers, said same-store sales for November and December would likely increase 2.5 percent to 3 percent compared to the like period in 2003, down from original estimates of 3 percent to 4 percent. 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 (the day after Thanksgiving), then business softened, then moderated, then last week everyone woke up and realized Christmas was around the corner and the malls were very busy."

Not only did L.A. escape the bad weather of the East, it benefited from population growth and job gains in industries such as 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 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 gas prices and rising interest rates had less of an impact on high-end consumers. This was also a record year for gift cards. All told, 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.

Buongiorno, Bella

After gaining national exposure in September as the gelato company that worked with contestants on NBC's hit Donald Trump vehicle "The Apprentice," Ciao Bella Gelato Co. is expanding in Los Angeles.

Based in New York, Ciao Bella's gelato is available in Whole Foods Markets in the Los Angeles area, but the 20-year-old company wants to open about a dozen company-owned scoop shops in Los Angeles and Orange counties by the end of the year.

Its first L.A. location, which is being created through a licensing arrangement with Warner Bros., will be a 200-square-foot gelateria slated to open by Feb. 1 on the Warner Bros. lot.

"We tend to do well in tourist-related locations," said Charlie Apt, a Ciao Bella partner. "Buying a gelato or sorbet product is very much a discretionary spend, and clearly tourists do quite a bit of that."

While most Ciao Bella shops are 500-1,000 square feet and offer roughly 40 flavors, the company is working on a broader concept that would expand beyond gelato and sorbet to include items such as crepes and stores that are between 1,500 and 2,000 square feet, he said. The smaller Warner Bros. store will have around 22 flavors.

New Hilton Eyes Asia

Football may help the Hilton Hotel Los Angeles/San Gabriel make its debut, but Asian business travelers will be its core clientele.

Following a soft opening in December, the 222-room hotel on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel was expected to be sold out for the Rose Bowl.

The hotel's restaurant, Trinity, serves Chinese and Western cuisine and is expected to cater to Asian business travelers. While 90 percent of its banquet business to date has been for Asian customers, that figure will likely settle at about 75 percent, said Tony DiRaimondo, its director of sales and marketing. Hotel officials expect room bookings to be evenly split between Asian and Western travelers.

Owned by Lancer Investments, a San Gabriel real estate company, and managed by Santa Monica-based Windsor Capital Group Inc., the $75 million hotel is located on a site that previously housed a 50-room motel and Vietnamese restaurant, both of which were torn down.

Staff reporter Rebecca Flass can be reached at (323) 549-5225, ext. 230, or at .

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