After a turbulent start to 2014, the nation’s retailers expect sales in November and December to increase a healthy 4.1% to $616.9 billion, higher than 2013’s actual 3.1% increase during that same time frame.

The forecast by the National Retail Federation excludes sales of autos, gasoline and restaurant transactions.

Holiday sales on average have grown 2.9% over the past 10 years, according to the group, including 2014’s estimates, and are expected to represent approximately 19.2% of the retail industry’s annual sales of $3.2 trillion.

This would mark the first time since 2011 that holiday sales would increase more than 4%.

“While expectations for sales growth are upbeat, it goes without saying there still remains some uneasiness and anxiety among consumers when it comes to their purchase decisions," said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “The lagging economic recovery, though improving, is still top of mind for many Americans. Recognizing the need to keep household budgets in line, we expect shoppers will be extremely price-sensitive as they have been for quite some time.”

NRF said while consumer confidence has been unstable much of the year, improvements over the past few months in key economic indicators will give way to increased spending power among holiday shoppers.  

“Though we have only seen consumer income and spending moderately and erratically accelerate this year, we believe there is still room for optimism this holiday season,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. “In the grand scheme of things, consumers are in a much better place than they were this time last year, and the extra spending power could very well translate into solid holiday sales growth for retailers. However, shoppers will still be deliberate with their purchases, while hunting for hard-to-pass-up bargains.”

NRF’s holiday sales forecast is based on an economic model using several indicators, including consumer credit, disposable personal income, and previous monthly retail sales releases, along with sales data in the non-store category such as direct-to-consumer, kiosks and online sales.

Meantime, a separate forecast said import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to see a final surge and set a new monthly record in October as the holiday season approaches, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released by NRF and the consulting firm Hackett Associates.

“Increasing congestion at the nation’s ports as well as the ongoing West Coast labor negotiations are ongoing concerns and retailers are making one last push to make sure they’re stocked up for the holidays,” explained NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold. “Retailers are working hard to make sure customers can find what they’re looking for regardless of what happens at the ports.”

Import volume at U.S. ports covered by the Global Port Tracker report is expected to total 1.53 million containers this month, topping the 1.52 million monthly record set in August. Cargo volume has been well above average each month since spring as retailers have imported merchandise early in case of any disruption on the docks, according to the report.

The contract between the shipping companies represented by the Pacific Maritime Association and dock workers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expired on July 1, prompting concerns about potential disruptions that could affect back-to-school or holiday merchandise. Dockworkers remain on the job as negotiations continue, but the lack of a contract and operational issues have led to record congestion at the ports, said NRF.

The 1.52 million 20-foot equivalent cargo container units handled in August, the latest month for which numbers are available, was up 1.5% from July and 2.1% from August 2013.

September was estimated at 1.48 million TEUs, up 2.8% from the same month last year, and October’s forecast of 1.53 million TEUs would be up 6.4% from last year. November is forecast at 1.39 million TEUs, up 3.7%, and December at 1.37 million TEUs, up 3.9%.

Those numbers would bring 2014 to a total of 17.1 million TEUs, an increase of 5.3% over 2013’s 16.2 million. Imports in 2012 totaled 15.8 million. The first half of 2014 totaled 8.3 million TEUs, up 7% over last year.

January 2015 is forecast at 1.42 million TEUs, up 3.5% from January 2014, while February is forecast at 1.35 million TEUs, up 8.5% from last year.

NRF noted while cargo volume does not correlate directly with sales, it is a barometer of retailers’ expectations.

“The consumer is back,” said Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said, citing reduced unemployment, improved consumer confidence and other indicators. “That’s all good news for retailers, ports and shipping lines.”

Global Port Tracker covers the U.S. ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma on the West Coast; New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston, Savannah, Port Everglades and Miami on the East Coast, and Houston on the Gulf Coast.