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By Carl Howe

Today's Wall Street Journal says that the last weekend of the holiday shopping season was lackluster. Bloomberg, on the other hand, claims that US sales were strong in the final holiday weekend. So who's right?

The real question is what companies are measuring and what their benchmarks are. The Wall Street Journal article is looking at a 6.6% rise over last year, which is lower than last year's 8.7% rise according to Mastercard International. The Bloomberg article, on the other hand, is looking at the data from the National Retail Federation, which is predicting a 5% gain this holiday season, which, despite the headline, would still be the lowest gain since 2002. So no matter which way you slice it, this was no gangbuster holiday season for retailers. But the jury is out about whether it was mediocre or downright slow.

Blackfriars' data leans more toward a lower value of the NRF number than either of these predictions: 3% growth over last year because of early and sustained discounting by the likes of Wal-Mart. And while our fourth quarter survey indicates that holiday marketing budgets are higher than they were last year, our data also suggests that actual marketing spending will likely be lower. And if companies spend less on marketing their products, they will sell less, pure and simple.

We'll have more data about the outlook for Q4 and 2007 marketing in our December marketing report, Marketing 2006: A Make Or Break Fourth Quarter (pre-order now to get $100 off the publication price). Meanwhile, we'll be watching the post-holiday sales numbers closely to see how aggressive retailers become this week. But at this point, our bets are that the visitation this holiday season had more to do with the Grinch than Santa Claus.

Editor's note: ETFs covering the retail sector include Retail HOLDRS (RTH), PowerShares Dynamic Retail (PMR), and SPDR Retail (XRT).

Source: More Grinch Than Santa This Holiday Sales Season