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American consumers swarmed stores the weekend before Christmas in a last-minute spree that gave national retail sales figures a 23% lift -- a figure that does not include sales at massive retailer Wal-Mart, which has been struggling during the holiday season. According to research firm ShopperTrak, December 23 alone saw sales of $8.72 billion, second only to Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), when consumers purchased $8.96 billion worth of merchandise. The weekend's combined figure was 22.5% higher than a year ago and may help the sector meet its forecast of a 5% sales gain, shy of last year's 6.1%. This would be the narrowest gain since 2002. The S&P 500 Retailing Index of 29 companies is nearly unchanged since October 31. Wal-Mart expects December same-store sales to rise about 1%, which would be the smallest gain since 2000. Wal-Mart shares have slid 7.6% and Federated Department Stores' shares 13%. The sector is now seeing dramatic post-holiday discounting in an effort to meet sales goals, particularly at mall apparel stores like the Gap and Ann Taylor.

• Sources: Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal (I, II), New York Times
• Related commentary: An Up-Close Look At Holiday Retailers, Retail Sales Data: A Closer Look, Retail Strength: Sustained Demand Or Deal-Hunting?, Retailers' Heavy Discounting Should Pressure Q4 Margins, Expecting Continued Weakness From Kohl's And Other Department Stores
• Potentially impacted stocks and ETFs: Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Federated Department Stores (FD), J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP), Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN), Target (NYSE:TGT), Sears Holding (NASDAQ:SHLD), Pier One (NYSE:PIR), Kohl's (NYSE:KSS), Saks (NYSE:SKS). ETFs: Retail HOLDRs (NYSEARCA:RTH), Consumer Discretionary SPDR (NYSEARCA:XLY)

Source: U.S. Retail Sales Relatively Strong as Holiday Season Ends