The final numbers are in, and the past holiday season was indeed one of the best since the last recession -- even if everyone didn't partake in the good fortune.
Sales rose 5.5 percent to $691.9 billion during November and December, the National Retail Federation said Friday. The results exclude spending on cars, gas and restaurants. E-commerce and other sales that occur outside stores jumped 11.5 percent.
"Whether they shopped in-store, online or on their phones, consumers were in the mood to spend, and retailers were there to offer them good value for their money," Matthew Shay, chief executive officer of the NRF, said in a statement. Before the season began, the trade group had estimated growth of 3.6 percent to 4 percent.
Many industry experts predicted this holiday season would be the best in a decade, fueled by higher consumer confidence, lower unemployment and increasing spending. Still, tepid results from department stores and apparel retailers show that not every company will benefit from more shopper spending.
Sales gains weren't evenly distributed in December, according to First Data's SpendTrend. Same-store sales at department stores through Dec. 25 declined more than 6 percent. Men's and women's clothing chains fell 1 percent. Meanwhile, discounters, shoe stores, electronics outlets and luxury brands all gained.
Macy's Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. both saw their shares decline after reporting holiday sales earlier this month. Macy's posted same-store sales growth of 1.1 percent for November and December. It also announced the closing of 11 stores, four of which had previously been disclosed.
At J.C. Penney, meantime, even an optimistic outlook from CEO Marvin Ellison couldn't buoy the retailer's shares after investors were underwhelmed by the company's 3.4 percent gain for holiday sales. Ellison predicted a rebound in apparel and other categories.
A separate reading of the season showed sales rose 5.7 percent in November and December combined, the best holiday period since 2005, said Craig Johnson, head of research firm Customer Growth Partners. At that time, with the economy and housing market still thriving, sales surged 6.1 percent.
"After years in hibernation, consumers -- accounting for 70 percent of GDP -- are finally flexing their spending muscles," Johnson said. "In short, the coming consumer boom has already arrived."
Every retail category except for sporting goods showed gains during the final two months of the year, according to the NRF. Building materials and supplies stores posted the biggest sales increase at 8.1 percent, followed by home furnishings at 7.5 percent and electronics and appliance stores at 6.7 percent.
General merchandise stores climbed 4.3 percent, while clothing and accessories stores grew 2.7 percent. Health and personal-care outlets rose 2.2 percent, while sporting goods dropped 0.5 percent.