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Holiday Haul Goes to High-End Retailers

The pay trends are also apparent in the most recent national retail figures.

The major retail chains reported a "disappointingly weak" 1.7 percent increase in November sales at their stores open at least a year, according to Michael P. Niemira, chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Jack Yeaton of New York shows some of the gifts he has purchased for the holidays. This season, the divide between rich and poor has widened. (Richard Drew -- AP)

But, "the luxury market continued to perform well," with combined sales for Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom stores up 5.2 percent, he said.

Meanwhile discounters posted a "sluggish" 1 percent gain, "with a very soft" 0.3 percent increase for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The average household income of a Wal-Mart shopper is $35,000 a year while a Target shopper's is $50,000 a year. These consumers have been among the hardest-hit by rising fuel and food costs this year, said Niemira, who estimates that Wal-Mart's sales are twice as likely to fall in response to rising gasoline prices as the industry's sales as a whole.

Meanwhile, the average household income of a Neiman Marcus shopper is more than $200,000 a year, the company estimates.

The pay trends are also evident in the Washington area neighborhoods without easy access to even a Wal-Mart or Target.

Edna Jones, 33, of Capitol Heights, said her work as a security guard at a downtown D.C. office building now earns her $10.41 an hour, up from $10 an hour when she started five years ago. That means her average weekly wage has risen 4.1 percent over a half-decade, to $416.40 before taxes.

Jones, whose husband works for fast-food restaurants, said their combined income barely covers the rent on their three-bedroom house plus all the expenses involved in caring for their three children. Still, the security job "puts food on the table," she said. "It's a struggle, but I have a roof over my head and the kids have food."

Jones said her Christmas shopping will be limited to replacing the clothes her three children grow through so quickly. She wishes she could buy them more, she said, "because they've been so good."

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