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by Andrea Chang and Alejandro Lazo

After a holiday season marked by uncertainty and discounts, early sales figures coming out of the nation’s malls, big-box stores and supermarkets showed improvement in a range of retail categories.

Total retail sales from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24 improved 3.6% from the same period a year earlier, according to data released Sunday by SpendingPulse, an information service of MasterCard Advisors. That figure includes traditional holiday-shopping destinations such as apparel and electronics chains as well as outlets such as grocery stores, furniture sellers and drugstores.

But industry watchers warned that the results didn’t point to a strong industry turnaround or the return of free-spending shoppers. The sales gains over 2008 were generally moderate. And last year’s holiday figures were so dismal, analysts said, that 2009 had almost nowhere to go but up.

“I see it as a cautious return to spending,” said Kamalesh Rao, director of economic research at SpendingPulse, which estimates sales for all forms of payment, including cash, checks and credit cards. “There wasn’t a huge resurgence. Even though we’re seeing some growth in terms of the holiday season, we’re still shy of the levels we saw from a couple years ago.”

Although signs are emerging that the U.S. economy is improving, many Americans are keeping a lid on their spending because of tight credit, deflated housing values and a weak labor market.

“I’ve definitely been shopping at a lot of secondhand stores and shopping the sales,” said Meredith Petro, 22, a technical designer at a garment manufacturer in downtown Los Angeles. “Everyone I know is just trying to be as conservative as possible because you just never know what’s going to happen.”

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