Bay Area stores appear to have ducked the lackluster holiday shopping season that buffeted retailers across the country, as local merchants reaped the benefits of the powerhouse Silicon Valley economy.
From mom-and-pop shops to gourmet food merchants to department stores, retailers across the Bay Area reported a busier-than-ever season, with the area's robust job growth fueling healthy consumer spending. Stephanie Sala, owner of Five Little Monkeys, said each of her three toy stores in the Bay Area had record-breaking sales on the Saturday before Christmas and their best holiday season ever.
"The whole month of December was kind of a roller-coaster ride," she said. But when the final numbers came in, "we ended up ahead of last year."
Early reports -- mostly anecdotal -- are positive. Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto and Stoneridge Shopping Center in Pleasanton reported increased sales in gift cards over last year, and Crate & Barrel in Walnut Creek had about 4,000 customers on the Saturday before Christmas, a huge traffic surge for the downtown store.
Steve Hay, manager of Brookstone at Sunvalley Shopping Center in Concord, said his store posted the highest sales among the 14 or so locations in Northern California.
"It's been a really, really good Christmas for merchants here in the Bay Area. We're definitely running counter to the national trends," said Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon
Stores elsewhere are scrambling to woo buyers back for post-Christmas sales. Nationally, this holiday season saw the worst growth in some sales categories since 2008, when spending contracted in the recession.
Analysts cut their projections for holiday sales growth from more than 3 percent to just above 2 percent compared with last year, citing bad weather, the fiscal cliff, the distraction of the presidential election and trauma after the massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Some retailers have called Christmas 2012 a lost season.
But Bay Area stores were largely sheltered from the storms -- both economic and weather -- that derailed the shopping season elsewhere.
"I don't sense that retailers are behind on their numbers in the Bay Area," said Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University. "It was a good year for them, and psychologically, they feel fine."
It's easier to feel good when the valley's tech sector is sizzling and new jobs are popping up left and right. More jobs means more people are earning money and spending it on gifts, said Jerry Nickelsburg, adjunct professor of economics in the Anderson School of Management at UC Los Angeles.
The Bay Area job market is the state's strongest, posting a gain of 2,900 jobs in November. The UCLA Anderson School of Management is forecasting that Bay Area employment growth will be 1.8 percent in 2013 and 2.4 percent in 2014. For the U.S., growth will be 1.4 percent and 1.7 percent.
Most of the Bay Area jobs -- 40,000 or so -- created over the past 18 months have been at social media, Internet, cloud storage, mobile and Big Data companies, which pay top wages, said Hancock of Joint Venture.
"I'm talking about good jobs, paying in six figures," he said. "And these tend to be young people, who are the very folks retailers have in their cross hairs."
Worries about the fiscal cliff, which hampered holiday sales elsewhere, didn't slow Bay Area shoppers.
"I didn't hear people running around saying it mattered, because it was masked by other good news" from the valley, Kalyanam said. He said successful tech companies going public this year, like Workday, SolarCity and even Facebook, despite its IPO stumbles, put money into consumers' pockets and boosted investors' confidence.
"All of this has made our economy heat up, big time, even while the rest of the country is stuck in second gear," Hancock said. "And it translates into lots of holiday spending, a lot of it very lavish."
But retail spending would slow in the Bay Area and elsewhere if politicians fail to sign a deal on the fiscal cliff. Even Silicon Valley is not immune to another economic nose-dive.
"The Bay Area will outpace the nation next year but a national recession will affect us as well," said Stephen Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.
Retailers got a fiscal-cliff scare when stocks dove this week as the threat of tax hikes and spending cuts looms.ï»¿
Said Ashley, manager of the Walnut Creek Crate & Barrel, who declined to give her last name: "When the stock market takes a drive around here, we definitely feel it."
Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.