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by Ylan Q. Muiq

Retailers pulled off a better-than-expected holiday season as rising consumer confidence — and a last-minute shopping spree — pushed sales higher in December, according to results released Thursday.

For about three dozen of the country’s biggest chains, sales at established stores increased an average of 2.8 percent in December from a year ago, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), a trade group. Sales for the last two months of the year jumped 1.8 percent, compared with a record 5.6 percent drop in 2008 — marking the strongest holiday performance in three years. The ICSC had forecast a 1 percent increase.

Though performance among individual retailers remained mixed, several chains beat expectations. Target sales jumped 1.8 percent in December. Gap rose 2 percent after a 14 percent decline last year. TJX, which owns TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, shot up 14 percent, and the company raised its earnings forecast for the fourth quarter.

“We are extremely pleased,” TJX chief executive Carol Meyrowitz said. “We believe consumers will remain focused on value as the economy improves.”

The results reflect sales at stores open at least a year — a key measure of health known as same-store sales — for national retailers that often act as bellwethers for the rest of the industry. Official sales results spanning the entire retail sector are scheduled to be released by the Commerce Department next week. But Thursday’s numbers reveal that after two years of asceticism, shoppers are willing to loosen their purse strings for the right deal.

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