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Retailers report strong December

NEW YORK — A last-minute surge in spending saved the holiday shopping season.

Major retailers — including Costco, Gap, and Nordstrom — on Thursday reported better-than-expected revenues in December. That comes as a relief for many stores, which can make up to 40 percent of their annual revenue in the last two months of the year.

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Americans spent cautiously early in the season as the Northeast recovered from Hurricane Sandy. Then they held back because of fears that the US economy would fall off the fiscal cliff, triggering massive budget cuts and tax increases that would have amounted to less money in their pockets. But shoppers spent more freely in the final shopping days of the year.

Twenty retailers reported that revenue at stores open at least a year — an indicator of a store’s health — rose an average of 4.5 percent in December, compared with the same month a year ago, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That is on the high end of the expected range of 4 percent to 4.5 percent. Only a small group of stores that represent about 13 percent of the $2.4 trillion US retail industry report monthly revenue, but the figures offer a snapshot of consumer spending.

‘‘I wouldn’t be doing cartwheels that it was a particularly great or strong holiday season, but it could have been worse, given the headwinds,’’ said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, a research firm. ‘‘The government and Mother Nature were not as cooperative as retailers would have liked. But it was definitely not as bad as feared.’’

December’s results provide a brighter picture than reports last month that proclaimed that the holiday shopping season was shaping up to be the worst since 2008, when the nation was in a deep recession.

The season had multiple fits and starts, with healthy spending during certain periods followed by stretches of tepid sales. Overall, revenue for the combined months of November and December rose 3.1 percent, roughly on par with the 3 percent rise that the International Council of Shopping Centers had predicted.

Sales were weak at the beginning of November after Hurricane Sandy and the distraction of the presidential campaign, followed by a surge later in the month during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend. Spending fell off after that until a rush before and after Christmas, when some stores began offering bigger discounts.

Nordstrom, for instance, had a particularly strong December, with revenue at stores open at least a year up 8.6 percent, more than double the 3.4 percent analysts expected.

The Seattle-based department store operator said revenue was particularly strong in the last week of the season.

‘‘That last-minute shopping, coupled with post-Christmas bargain hunting and early gift-card redemption, helped propel sales at the end of the month,’’ said Michael P. Niemira, the International Council of Shopping Centers’ chief economist.

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