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Christmas shopping: Did retail season already go over the 'fiscal cliff'?

Holiday retail sales were hampered initially this year by the the aftermath of hurricane Sandy and more recently by shoppers' fiscal cliff fears. The run-up to Christmas will make or break the season.

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Consumers shop for Christmas decorations at the Walmart Supercenter store in Rosemead, Calif., in Nov.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

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The final stretch to Christmas Day will make or break retailers’ holiday shopping season following a sluggish start that was hampered initially by turbulent weather conditions and more recently by the continued debate over the so-called fiscal cliff.

Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath was one reason the shopping season – the 50 days before Christmas – was off to a such slow start. Retail sales in November inched up just 0.3 percent compared with October, according to the US Commerce Department.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and typically one of the biggest shopping days of the year, appeared at first glance to indicate a significant downturn for retailers. According to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which tracks retail sales via all forms of payment, including cash and check, Black Friday sales this year totaled about $18.9 billion, a 4.9 percent drop from the previous year.

However, because most retailers opened their doors earlier than normal on Thanksgiving Day, an extra $6.2 billion was spent, hiking the combined spending for the two days by 2.1 percent over the same days in 2011.

In all of November, the Commerce Department reports, department stores took the biggest hit, with sales falling 0.8 percent from October. At Macy’s, November sales fell 0.7 percent compared with the same month the previous year.

Retail spending overall eased in early December, which Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis at MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, attributes primarily to headlines about the looming fiscal cliff of tax increases and spending cuts that are causing consumers to think twice about committing to big ticket spending.

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