Last-minute holiday shoppers elevated sales to their strongest increase of the month last week, with gift cards playing a critical role.

This story first appeared in the January 2, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Store Sales Index, sales in retail categories other than restaurants and automotive areas were up 3 percent during the week ended Dec. 28, versus the year-ago week, better than the 2.7 percent increase logged during the prior week or the 2 and 1.5 percent gains logged during the second and first weeks of the month, respectively.

The sequential improvement as December progressed gave Michael Niemira, vice president of research and chief economist of ICSC, cause for optimism for the remainder of the month. ICSC expects the increase for December to land at between 3 and 4 percent.

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“Business was brisk in the final days ahead of Christmas and for the week as a whole,” the ICSC official said. “Now attention turns to holiday gift-card redemptions.”

The ICSC-Goldman Sachs consumer tracking survey found that the average share of holiday spending attributable to gift cards rose to 23.7 percent this year, the highest on record.

“This is good news, as it means that the ‘extended season’ — the weeks after Christmas into January — will play an important role in the final tally of the season’s performance,” Niemira said.

Week-by-week trends weren’t as strong, according to the survey, with last week up 1 percent from the preceding one, when sales improved 1.4 percent over the week before. Sales for the week ended Dec. 14 were up 4.8 percent from those of the week ended Dec. 7, and sales during the first week were down 1.6 percent when compared with the final week of November, which included Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday.

The ICSC-Goldman Sachs survey measures same-store sales at brick-and-mortar retailers.