Dec. 28, 2005--Early numbers on the holiday shopping season look good for retailers, and may end up looking even better if gift-card sales are any indication. But smaller stores, less likely to offer gift cards than chains and big-box retailers, may not enjoy the extended shopping season as much as their larger counterparts.

Retail sales in the week ending Dec. 24 increased when compared to the sales in the same week in 2004, according to two surveys released Wednesday.

Sales for mall stores in the week before Christmas increased 25.5% over the same week last year, according to the National Retail Sales Estimate, which is compiled by Chicago-based researcher ShopperTrak.

Chain stores also did well. Sales at chain stores in the week before Christmas increased by 3.9% over last year's sales during the same week, according to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers. The survey gathered data from 80 chains across the country.

Sales numbers should stay strong as people redeem gift cards in the coming weeks, said Michael P. Niemira, the chief economist for the ICSC.

"While retailers are pleased with last week's performance, the holiday shopping season is far from over," he said.

Gift-card purchases only count toward a retailer's sales numbers when those cards are redeemed, not when the cards are first bought.

It remains to be seen whether smaller retailers will gain quite as much from the gift-card craze. Many don't offer them at all, and even those that do often have trouble matching the reach that national chains have. But increasingly, more and more regional chains and independent stores are recognizing the need for gift-card programs.

Steve and Barry's University Sportswear, a New York-based collegiate apparel retailer, started offering gift cards last year, when it was growing into a national brand, according to spokesperson Rick Gomes. The retailer has grown from 12 stores in 1998 to 60 stores last year, and now has 125 stores in 32 states.

"With the convenience, people are looking at gift cards as a way to give loved ones or friends a gift that doesn't have to be returned," Gomes said.