It's really a jumble, depending on which gauge you're using. So we have:
--A 4.5 percent increase in December compared with a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters, which tracks 17 chains. Analysts had expected a hike of 3.3 percent.
--But then there's ShopperTrak, which counts activity at the nation's malls and reported a sales gain of 2.5 percent gain in November and December compared with last year. That's down from an earlier estimate of 3.3 percent.
--And it gets worse: MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, which estimates overall consumer spending, said holiday-related sales rose 0.7 percent from the end of October through Christmas Eve. That's the smallest increase since 2008.
Still to be heard is the government, which will release its own retail sales report for December, and fourth-quarter financial results for the chains themselves, which will show profitability for the period (deep discounts later in the month are likely to impact earnings). Let's also not forget sales tax revenue for California, which should indicate whether the state fared better than the nation as a whole. Normally, there's some deviation in the holiday numbers, but for various reasons 2012 shapes up to be especially difficult to read. "It was a very complicated month, with all sorts of events that threatened fragile expectations," Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the Wharton School told the WSJ. One of those events was the Washington budget talks, which cooled - or didn't cool - consumer spending, depending on which economist you read. I'm dubious about tying too much to the fiscal cliff hysteria, especially since the stock market managed to have a pretty good month. And yet there's no question that sales were somewhat disappointing, for whatever reason.