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by Lou Hirsh

Retail experts expect at least slightly better Christmas holiday sales this year than last, assuming things can’t get much worse than 2008′s shopping season, which arrived in the midst of a near meltdown of the nation’s financial system.

The overall economy hasn’t improved significantly from a year ago. In some ways, it’s weakened as the Inland Southern California jobless rate still tops 14 percent.

Shoppers will remain cautious and bargain-minded. But optimism is being fueled in part by recent upticks in national chain-store sales figures, which showed their biggest improvements in more than a year during both September and October, as well as slight declines in local job losses.

“With the holiday season you’re counting on the people who are employed to spend,” said Chapman University economist Esmael Adibi. “They probably feel a little better than a year ago about their jobs, or they might have a feeling of ‘I survived,’ and relax a little in their spending.”

Adibi said he is generally more upbeat than other observers about Southern California’s retail prospects, and he estimates the region overall could see sales this season rise 2 percent over a year ago. However, the Inland area will likely see sales stay even with last year’s or perhaps rise as much as 1 percent, since it is harder hit by unemployment than the rest of Southern California.

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