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Jolly holiday shopping season already underway

Lilian Stoppa and Renata Rosa stepped out of Target in Midtown Miami with a cart piled high with holiday gifts.

Landing in Miami on Thursday morning for a five-day shopping spree, they already had spent $800 by mid-afternoon on presents for family members: toys for Rosa’s daughter, beauty items for Stoppa’s mother, plus lots of other stuff.

“This is just the start,” giggled Stoppa, 30, who works with Rosa, also 30, at a Sao Paulo telecom company. Their next stops: Sawgrass Mills, Aventura Mall and Bal Harbour Shops, if their money holds out. “We came to Miami to shop because it’s very much cheaper than in Brazil.”

Tourists like Stoppa and Rosa are exactly the reason retail experts predict Florida’s holiday shopping season will see its highest increase since the recession.

Across South Florida, stores are getting a head start on the holidays in hopes of cashing in. Sales are already underway everywhere from Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, to Macy’s, Toys“R”Us and Anthropologie.

The Florida Retail Federation forecasts that Florida will see a 5.2 percent jump in holiday spending from $55 billion in 2011 to $58 billion this year, marking the highest percentage growth predicted since the economic slump began. Pre-recession, retail sales peaked at $54.3 billion in 2006.

“All of the indicators point to what we believe will be a very robust holiday shopping season,” said Florida Retail Federation President and Chief Executive Rick McAllister.

That also translates into more than 42,000 new retail jobs, he said.

Buoyed in large part by tourists and snowbirds, Florida is expected to outpace the nation in spending for the holiday season, as it did before the recession.

This year, the National Retail Federation is predicting holiday spending nationwide to rise 4.1 percent. On average, consumers are expected to spend about $750 each.

Economists point to strong consumer confidence as a major factor contributing to a stronger shopping season.

“By and large the consumer is very confident right now, and that usually leads to spending,” McAllister said.

Other indicators also point to a healthy season. ICSC, a trade association for the shopping center industry, this week released its ICSC-Goldman Sachs 2012 Holiday Spending Intentions Survey, which found that 19 percent of consumers plan to spend more, and 5 percent substantially more, on holiday gifts this year versus last year. It was the highest percentage of consumers reporting they intend to increase spending over the previous holiday season since ICSC began asking the question in 2004.

Retailers like West Elm are ready, beckoning gift givers. Stores are decked out with sparkly, eye-catching displays of items like candlesticks, ornaments and crystal paperweights.

“We’ve had lots of people shopping early, for several weeks,” said Ana Meza, an assistant manager at West Elm in Midtown Miami.

Without question, the holiday season is critical for retailers, a period when they typically generate 20 percent to 40 percent of the full year’s revenue.

This year brings an added bonus. With Thanksgiving falling early, the shopping season is stretched to 32 days, giving retailers more valuable time to rack up sales.

Shoppers like Jose Hernandez aren’t waiting for the last minute. Hernandez, who works as a civilian supervisor at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Miss., and spends every other three months home in Miami, started his holiday shopping this week. He figures he spent $2,000 at Carter’s, GUESS, Marshalls and Target in Midtown, and plans to spend a total of $5,000 — up 40 percent from last year — before Christmas Day.

“The economy is going up,” said Hernandez, 44.

Yet experts say that many holiday revelers will avoid the stores all together, opting instead for online purchases.

Retail experts expect e-commerce to continue to post a dramatic increase this holiday season, up 15 percent. Though it still represents only about 5 percent of all shopping, online buying is the fastest-growing segment of the retail industry, McAllister said.

Many online sites are offering percentage discounts starting this weekend. Disney Store will offer a selection of “Magical Friday” deals on sale beginning Monday, at Kohl’s is letting customers shop more than 500 “Early Bird specials” on starting Wednesday.

While apparel is expected to be the top category for purchases, gift cards are again projected to outsell any single article of merchandise. The National Retail Federation’s 2012 holiday consumer spending survey showed that 81.1 percent of shoppers will purchase at least one gift card, spending an average of $156.86 on them.

“Gift cards are the best invention ever,” said Jennifer Mayer, 44, a drug representative who has three daughters and lives in Miami Beach. “It’s not for everyone, but it’s great for those you don’t intimately know.”

This year, Mayer plans to buy gift cards at places like Starbucks, H&M, Forever 21 and Barnes & Noble.

“They’re great for bosses. They’re great for teenagers,” she said. “They’re a lifesaver.”