Holiday sales soared 5.1 percent at merchants in the state - more than double the projection by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and ahead of the national average - in another sign the Bay State’s economy is recovering at a faster pace.
The 2011 holiday season marked the second straight year of sales increases in the Commonwealth, a significant turnaround from the previous three years of consecutive declines during November and December.
“Massachusetts holiday sales fell earlier and harder than the country’s beginning in 2007, and that trend continued through 2009, yet the last two years have been up and local sales have exceeded national numbers,’’ said Jon B. Hurst, president of the association.
“We are cautiously optimistic we will see further sales growth in 2012 as consumer confidence continues to improve,’’ he added.
Last week, the National Retail Federation reported that sales for November and December rose 4.1 percent to $471.5 billion, surpassing the group’s forecast of 3.8 percent growth. December sales grew 4.1 percent, compared with a year earlier, but declined marginally from November’s.
Consumer spending drives two-thirds of the US economy, and the last two months of the year are a critical period when retailers typically generate up to 40 percent of their annual sales.
In Massachusetts, some merchants said they were shocked by how much revenues grew, given the uncertain economic environment and the volatile stock market late last year.
Carole Horne, general manager of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, said sales surged well into the double digits, compared to 2010, making it the best holiday season since 2006.
“Nobody was predicting that retail would be that strong,’’ Horne said. “We had been down or flat for the last three or four holiday seasons. There are lots of things in the book business - the increase in online shopping and eBooks - that would make you think we would not do well at all.’’
Horne said her independent bookshop benefited from the absence of rival Borders, the bankrupt bookstore chain that shuttered all of its locations last year, and a growing desire by consumers to shop locally.
That movement, she said, may have gained steam following a controversial Amazon.com marketing ploy that offered shoppers a discount for going into local merchants and then purchasing items online.
“The main thing heard over and over from consumers is that they decided to do their shopping with local businesses,’’ Horne said. “We are totally delighted.’’
Paul Edelstein, director of financial economics at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, said Massachusetts fared better than other parts of the country because of the stronger economy. The unemployment rate in the state fell to 7 percent in November, the lowest in three years and well below the national rate of 8.5 percent in December. The region has also enjoyed strong job gains in sectors such as technology and biotechnology, which tend to pay well.
“The Boston area isn’t representative of the larger country, where things in many pockets are much worse,’’ Edelstein said.
“We didn’t have the big housing bust,’’ he added, “our unemployment rate is better, and we have a more highly educated population that wasn’t as hard hit, so there is a little more spending power in a place like Boston.’’
US chain store sales for November and December rose 3.3 percent, below analysts’ projections and less than the 3.8 percent gain in 2010, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Retailers faced several obstacles, including unseasonably warm weather that dissuaded consumers from purchasing jackets and other winter items.
That left companies holding large inventories into late December and forced chains such as J.C. Penney and Kohl’s to offer big discounts.
Lisa Di Pietro, co-owner of the Pet Cabaret in Roslindale, said her shop discounted a little more aggressively during the holiday season, but mostly managed to preserve profits. After a slowdown during the recession, revenues at the shop, which focuses on natural and organic pet products, have steadily climbed over the past two holiday seasons.
Sales rose 9 percent in November and December, and the business sold out of seasonal toys and biscuits.
“I was pleasantly surprised,’’ she said. “You spend a lot of time listening to the news and everybody tells you how bad it can be, but no one tells you how good it can be. So you’re always glad when the doomsayers are wrong.’’Jenn Abelson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.