PORTLAND – The concept of the holiday shopping season as make-or-break for retailers may be undergoing a bit of a change, said Judith Parker, who owns Tavecchia, a clothing and jewelry store on Exchange Street.

“The holidays aren’t like the good old days,” said Parker, who said sales at her store were nonetheless good for the season. “Christmas used to be what I would call ‘flying tissue (paper).’ But people have adjusted to not spending the way they used to.”

This year, Parker said, Tavecchia did particularly well during the summer, in part because of the large number of cruise ships that called in the city. Her expectations for the holiday season were tempered by the poor economy that hit retailers hard over the last couple of years, she said.

Like Parker, many independent retailers in Maine are reporting solid, but perhaps not spectacular, sales gains for the holiday season this year.

The results are encouraging, especially compared to the past two seasons, which came in the midst of a financial crisis and then a deep recession.

“I think people were cautiously optimistic” after a summer that represented a rebound from a dismal 2009, said Myra Hopkins, executive director of the Freeport Merchants Association.

She noted that the large Freeport Village Station shopping area is about 80 percent leased and developers are holding some space aside for the possibility of a movie theater moving into the property. Several new stores have opened up in the past few months in other parts of town, she said.

Hopkins said that some fall promotional events put together by the merchants in Freeport were well-received, and a holiday kickoff event that featured nearly four dozen stores opening up at midnight the Friday after Thanksgiving got the season off to a good start.

The holiday’s timing, with Christmas falling on Saturday, didn’t help sales by moving the key last weekend to a full week ahead of the holiday, Hopkins said. But, on the plus side, she pointed out that the weather cooperated during most of the month, even during that early-morning Black Friday event.

Many analysts had expected sales this holiday season to rise 3 or 4 percent and actual results so far suggest those predictions were either met or perhaps exceeded.

MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, a research firm, said its figures show consumer spending rising 5.5 percent from the beginning of November through Christmas Eve compared to the same period a year ago. That’s the biggest increase since 2006.

In Portland, Alison Tostevin, the manager of Treehouse Toys on Exchange Street, said her experience mirrored those national numbers.

“In 2006 was probably our strongest year and I think we’ll be competitive with that,” she said.

She said weekday sales were slow, but consistently strong weekend sales drove the increases she saw.

Part of the reason, Tostevin said, may be that parents cut back on gift-giving for adults when money is tight, but still dig deep for presents for their children.

“They cut back for themselves first and then cut back for their kids last,” she said.

The last week of the season for retailers is under way. They hope shoppers head back to the stores with gift cards, though it got off to a poor start with Monday’s blizzard either keeping stores closed or shoppers home.

ShopperTrak, a research firm, said the storm cost retailers about $1 billion, but it only delayed those sales and won’t hurt a season that the firm said is the best since 2007.

Sales lost to storms before the holiday may not be made up, the company said, but after-Christmas storms tend only to delay sales. A mid-Atlantic snowstorm before Christmas last year cost retailers about $2 billion, the firm said.

ShopperTrak estimates that sales for the period from Nov. 1 through the end of the year will still show sales up 4 percent over last year.

Hopkins said Freeport stores were busy once again Wednesday and she expects good sales through the weekend with schools closed until Monday and seasonably mild temperatures forecast.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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