NEW YORK (MainStreet) – After two years of disappointing holiday sales, the retail industry finally has something to smile about.

The early results on the 2010 holiday shopping season are in, and the news is good: Retail sales from Nov. 5 to Dec. 24 rose 5.5% over the same period in 2009, according to MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse report.

The big gains exceeded even the most optimistic projections for the 2010 shopping season. The National Retail Federation, for instance, initially projected a modest increase of 2.2% over 2009 sales, then revised that projection upwards to 3.3% after surprisingly strong sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The better-than-expected returns suggest an increased consumer confidence in the state of the economy, at least as measured by Americans’ willingness to open their wallets for Christmas.

As expected, the SpendingPulse report found that the biggest winners were online retailers, which enticed shoppers with free shipping throughout the season and were rewarded by a seasonal sales increase of 15.4%. Apparel retailers also had a big season, with the sector growing 11.2% over 2009.

Still, the season was not without underperformers. Electronics grew just 1.2% over 2009, and electronics giant Best Buy had a particularly cold Christmas, seeing its stock tumble after disappointing sales. And retail may see a dip in the last week of the year as the massive blizzard that hit the East Coast this weekend keeps shoppers away from the traditional after-Christmas sales.

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