By Nathan Layne
(Reuters) - U.S. retail sales rose 5.5 percent from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve as solid demand for women's apparel, jewelry and casual dining offset surprisingly sluggish sales of electronics, MasterCard said in its holiday spending report.
The report, which tracks spending by combining sales activity in MasterCard's payments network with estimates of cash and other payment forms, offers an early look into how the holiday season shaped up. Official government data and results from retailers will not be available until next month.
The results of the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse report are the latest sign that a stronger economy boosted spending during the holiday season. An improving jobs market, with unemployment at a six-year low, and falling gasoline prices are among the factors helping to spur spending.
The National Retail Federation, the industry's main trade body, is forecasting that retail sales will increase 4.1 percent during November and December, the biggest jump since 2011.
The MasterCard report highlighted how uneven the gains are, with some surprising winners and losers.
Casual dining and lodging were among the strongest categories, posting double-digit and nearly double-digit year-on-year sales growth, respectively, from "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, through Dec. 24.
The results reflected a growing consumer preference for "experience" over goods, Sarah Quinlan, a senior vice president at MasterCard, said. The "economy is very strong but they are spending in a different way," she said in an interview.
Contrary to some experts who predicted a strong showing for electronics, the category was among the weakest, with sales "basically flat" from Black Friday to Dec. 24 and in negative territory when looking at sales starting on Nov. 1, according to the report.
Brian Sozzi, head of Belus Capital Advisors, still thinks Best Buy Co Inc, the country's largest electronics retailer, had a strong holiday season. A flat sales performance for the industry as a whole may simply point to volume sales of PCs and other products marked by steep price declines, he said.
Based on his visits to Best Buy stores, Sozzi said higher-end televisions, headphones and watches sold well. "All of the pricier stuff for them moved and moved very aggressively to the point where the last couple of days before Christmas Eve the shelves were basically bare," he said.
Quinlan said apparel overall showed single-digit growth, and women's apparel had mid-single-digit growth since Black Friday. She said it was not clear if the growth would translate into profits, echoing warnings by many analysts worried by heavy discounting in apparel this year.
Sozzi said one likely winner of some of that apparel demand was J.C. Penney Co Inc, which he said was doing brisk sales of trendier women's items, as well as athletic apparel.
Other strong categories noted in the MasterCard report were furniture, which Quinlan said highlighted growing consumer confidence in the economy, and jewelry, with sales growth in the mid-single digits from Black Friday through Christmas Eve.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Chicago and Ramkumar Iyer in Bengaluru; Editing by Leslie Adler)