NEW YORK — Forget the returns line. People hit the stores after Christmas to buy, indulging the rediscovered retail appetite that may have made 2010's holiday shopping season the biggest ever.
Revenue for the holiday season is on track to grow at its strongest rate since 2006. Total spending for November and December could exceed 2007 sales — the best season on record. This despite an uncertain economy and a rise in thrifty habits.
Shoppers spent more on their family and friends and, for the first time since before the recession started, treated themselves and even their pets. After Christmas, even an East Coast blizzard didn't kill the mood as they headed to stores armed with gift cards and eyeing a new crop of discounts.
Mall of America spokesman Dan Jasper reported Monday that shoppers are doing more buying and less returning this week than a year ago.
"People are definitely treating themselves," particularly to jeans and accessories, he said.
Shoppers spent more across the board this holiday season. Clothing sales rose 11.2 percent. Jewelry and luxury goods showed strong single-digit gains compared with a year ago, though they've not returned to pre-recession levels, according to data released late Monday by MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse.
Total consumer spending, excluding autos, rose 5.5 percent to $584.3 billion from Nov. 5 through Dec. 24, compared with the same 50-day period a year ago, according to SpendingPulse.
That marks the biggest increase since 2007, when revenue rose 4.9 percent. Total sales surpassed 2007 holiday spending, which reached $566.34 billion, though the figures aren't adjusted for inflation.
"In 2008, stores were knocked down. In 2009, they found some stability, and in 2010, they took a step forward toward growth," said Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at SpendingPulse, which tracks spending across all transactions including cash.
Spending was strong since the start of the holiday shopping season in November, and the momentum continued through Christmas Eve, a surprising sign of strength for the economy. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.
People spent more even as they held on to frugal habits learned during the recession, from focusing on big bargains to paying with cash. That conservative shopping mentality was clear as shoppers rummaged through clearance bins at stores and malls this week.
"I don't want to go any deeper into debt," said Dana Hall, 36, who arrived at Atlantic Station, a downtown shopping complex in Atlanta, on Sunday while killing time before picking up a passenger at the city's airport. Hall said he had kept his job throughout the recession, but the economic troubles turned him into a cash-only shopper.
Stores headed into the season with angst that they would have too much inventory. That's because they placed most of their orders in the spring when the economic recovery looked stronger than it seemed later in the year.
But stores struck the right notes to get careful holiday shoppers to buy more. They rolled out discounts starting in late October to cater to shoppers who wanted to stretch out their buying.
Free shipping was practically a given for online sales, which rose 15.4 percent, according to SpendingPulse. Stores stayed open later and some pulled all-nighters.
The National Retail Federation predicts spending this holiday season, Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, will reach $451.5 billion, up 3.3 percent over last year. That forecast was upgraded earlier this month based on a robust November. That would be the biggest increase since 2006, and the largest total since a record $452.8 billion in 2007. The NRF forecast excludes restaurants, gas and autos and looks at online sales only from physical stores.