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A late surge in shopping and pent-up demand for women’s clothing gave a boost to holiday sales, according to early spending figures.

U.S. retail sales rose 7.9 percent between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, excluding cars and gas, with women’s apparel and furniture seeing the biggest gains, according to figures from MasterCard Advisors. For all of November and December, sales were up 4.6 percent — slightly better than expected.

The figures indicate that consumers are starting to feel more confident and buying big-ticket items such as new sofas, said Sarah Quinlan, senior vice president of market insights for MasterCard. They’re also tapping the extra cash they’ve gained from cheap gas prices. Consumers spent 72 cents of every dollar they saved from lower fuel costs, MasterCard found.

“This shows that consumers are feeling more confident that they are going to get that bonus or have a job a year from now,” Quinlan said.

Cooling temperatures in many parts of the country probably helped drive a double-digit sales increase in women’s clothing, which has been selling poorly for the past six months, Quinlan said. But not every retailer was a winner. Men’s apparel and electronic sales declined, as did luxury items such as watches and jewelry, she said.

Online sales rose 20 percent, with 70 percent of consumers doing more research online than last year.

MasterCard’s figures comes from credit-card transactions as well as consumer surveys on spending with cash and checks.

Retailers also are expecting a final shopping surge during the last week of the year. The day after Christmas was the busiest Dec. 26 ever, according to Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. It’s giving retailers a strong start to what he calls the “second season” — the week before Christmas and New Year’s, when shoppers hit stores to cash in gift cards and return merchandise.

That’s welcome news for an industry that was bracing for a slowdown. Retailers, especially brick-and-mortar stores, suffered sluggish sales during Black Friday weekend, which follows Thanksgiving.

“A late surge turned a miserable season into at least a mediocre one,” Johnson said. His firm had forecast a 3.2 percent holiday increase, but the last-minute spending pushed the projection up to 3.4 percent.

Savvy retailers have learned to roll out new goods during the period because shoppers with gift cards are more willing to pay full price, viewing the cards as “found money,” Johnson said. That will help what has been “in general a terrible year for margins,” he said.

That post-holiday buying “trims the decline in margins that would otherwise occur,” Johnson said. “It’s not enough to save the season financially, but it makes the downdraft less severe.”

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