MONTREAL (Reuters) –
U.S. retailers posted a better performance during the 2009 holiday shopping season, with sales as tracked by MasterCard Advisors unit SpendingPulse up 3.6 percent.

SpendingPulse figures exclude gasoline and automobile sales. They reflect activity that SpendingPulse tracks in the MasterCard payments networks as well as estimates for other payment forms such as cash and checks.

The increase was fueled by a 15.5 percent surge in online purchases as well as a modest recovery in areas such as luxury spending and women's apparel as tracked by SpendingPulse. In 2008, retailers posted a drop in sales, their worst holiday performance in decades, after a global financial markets crisis.

SpendingPulse has been tracking holiday spending figures since 2002, for the period from November 1 until Christmas Eve.

"Last year the economy and consumer spending were in free fall. This year we're talking about an environment that has stabilized, that has seen a leveling off," said Kamalesh Rao, director of economic research at Spending Pulse.

The spike in online spending stems from greater consumer comfort with e-commerce, as well as from snowstorms that hit the East Coast and the Midwest in the final week before Christmas, stranding many shoppers at home. Online retail sales account for about 5 percent of overall sales.

But Rao cautioned that the return of retail spending was "tentative" and still far below 2007 levels.

Holiday sales can account for between 25 percent and 40 percent of annual sales for many retailers. The National Retail Federation has forecast a 1 percent decline in holiday sales this year.

Luxury sales, which include sales at high end department stores such as Saks Inc (SKS.N) and Nordstrom, (JWN.N) recovered after a bloodbath in 2008, edging up 0.8 percent.

Jewelry sales shot up 5.6 percent and gathered steam in the final days before Christmas, Rao said, aided in part by Wall Street bonuses this year and the stock market's rally in 2009.

"Luxury and jewelry are very sensitive to what's happening in the financial markets," Rao said.

Sales at specialty electronics chains such as Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N) rose 5.9 percent, in part because of pent up demand after sales fell sharply in 2008, Rao said.

Men's apparel sales rose 3.9 percent, while women's clothing sales edged down 0.3 percent, though sales picked up in December.

Sales at specialty apparel retailers such as Gap Inc (GPS.N) and Abercrombie & Fitch Co (ANF.N) stabilized after 2008's disastrous holiday season, when sales fell by one-fifth. This year, sales edged down 0.4 percent, but showed signs of life after Black Friday this year, rising 2.3 percent between the last Friday in November and December 24.

(Reporting by Phil Wahba; Editing by Valerie Lee)

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