By Anne D’Innocenzio

The Associated Press

Hot holiday items this year

TOYS: Fingerlings, the $15 colorful monkeys that wrap around a finger, have been hard to find sometimes. Other hot items were the LOL Surprise ball, which hides small dolls and other trinkets in layers inside. And Hatchimals, animatronic bird-like creatures that hatch from eggs, were back this year with new twists after being a hit last year. Board games were popular, too, particularly messy ones like Soggy Doggy, which shakes water onto players. And “Star Wars” toys related to the latest movie fared well, though not matching last year’s success, says Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of toy site TTPM.

CLOTHING: Cold weather has driven shoppers to buy coats, boots and gloves, but they’re also picking up other fashion items, says Scott Bernhardt, president of Planalytics, which consults with retailers on weather patterns. Velvet is again taking center stage, with blazers, dresses and wide-leg pants all being the most-wanted pieces, says Lyst, a massive fashion e-commerce platform.

HOUSEWARES: Gadgets like the Instant Pot, which combines a pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker and more, were hot this year. Through November, sales of multiuse cookers rose 79 percent to more than $300 million, says the NPD Group, a market research firm. Multicookers were big hits over Thanksgiving weekend, and inventory was sold out or low.

CONSUMER ELECTRONICS: New Apple iPhones and watches as well as new video consoles topped shoppers’ list for consumer electronics, says Craig Johnson, president of consulting group Customer Growth Partners. Popular consoles included the hand-held Nintendo Switch, and nostalgia made the Super NES Classic, a miniature version of the coveted 1990s console, hard to find.

Shoppers who are feeling good about the economy and spending more than expected on items like kitchen gadgets, toys and coats could make this the best holiday season in several years.

That’s good news for retailers, some of which have had few reasons of late to be merry. But there’s no question that stores need to keep adapting to how people shop as spending moves online. Customer sentiment could shift again based on how they feel the tax overhaul is affecting them. Tax cuts mean some shoppers may have more money in their pockets, but they could opt to save it instead of spend it.

Experts have issued rosy forecasts for the season. Shoppers seem to be in the mood as unemployment is at 17-year low and consumer sentiment has reached its highest level since 2000.

“I feel confident and optimistic about spending this year,” said Jorge Nova, of Miami, as the shopping began on Thanksgiving weekend, when he lined up at Best Buy and bought a 65-inch TV. “I don’t really have a clear budget. It’s been a good year for me.”

Shoppers are spending at a pace not seen since the Great Recession, says Craig Johnson, president of retail consulting group Customer Growth Partners. Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, predicts retail sales will meet or exceed the trade group’s holiday forecast. That could mark the best performance since 2014. And Tom McGee, CEO of the International Council of Shopping Centers, believes mall traffic and sales were higher than last year as shoppers bought electronics, clothing and toys.

The week leading up to Christmas is critical for stores, accounting for more than 20 percent of traffic for the overall season, says ShopperTrak, which monitors foot traffic. Because of the calendar this year, with a full weekend leading into Christmas, retailers also may see more late shoppers.

“I procrastinate every year,” said Rick Daigneault of Warwick, Rhode Island, who was just starting his shopping Dec. 17 at his local mall. “It never fails. Christmas Eve, I’m always at CVS looking for stocking stuffers.”

First Data, a payment technology firm, puts online sales growth at about double the level at stores. Some analysts have said they expect a large portion of the holiday growth to go toward Amazon, which has been expanding into new areas and putting more kinds of retailers on alert. Amazon had said Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, was the biggest shopping day in its history but didn’t provide figures. Estimates suggest the online behemoth accounted for more than 60 percent of all U.S. online sales that day, compared to just under 40 percent on average for the year to date, according to Bain & Co.

LouAnn Vega did all of her shopping online this year and was finished with more than a week to go before Christmas. She says she discovered a cookware set and clothes online that she couldn’t find in the store, and saved money shopping online. Her family exchanged wish lists that consist of web link after web link. “You can’t miss,” she said at a suburban Atlanta mall where she came to walk and drink coffee.

Stores are working to adapt. Target increased weekend deals that started in mid-November, and Macy’s revamped its loyalty program for its best customers.

But plenty of stores are struggling. Fifty retailers have filed for bankruptcy this year, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. Many of them very small companies, but some are well-known brands like Payless ShoeSource and Toys R Us. There have been nearly 7,000 announced store closures this year, according to Fung Global Retail & Technology, which exceeds the 2008 peak of 6,200.

But most department stores, which have been struggling over the past three years, seem to have held their own. Macy’s Inc. announced in early December it was adding an extra 7,000 holiday temporary workers because of strong traffic. And some specialty clothing chains like Urban Outfitters and American Eagle Outfitters have said holiday sales have been strong.

While a good season gives stores a boost in confidence and shows their investments are working, they need to keep up with shoppers. Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics LLC, is skeptical about whether the momentum will continue through 2018 and wonders if retailers will be able to drive enough foot traffic to make each store profitable.

Plus, McGee and other analysts say it’s still unclear how exactly the tax changes will affect consumer spending. But McGee does expect shoppers will feel comfortable about spending with more money available.