Holiday sales are expected to rise 3 percent in November and December compared to the last two months of 2011, a trade group for the shopping center industry is forecasting.

The expected increase is pegged to an index measuring sales at chain stores open at least a year.

The forecast released Tuesday by The International Council of Shopping Centers also calls for slight increases in sales at shopping centers and in sales at stores selling general merchandise, apparel and accessories, furniture and other items. In that category, sales are expected to rise nearly 3 percent, to $258 billion, compared to the 2011 November/December period, ICSC said.

But an ICSC economist anticipates more uncertainty than usual, thanks to rising gasoline prices, the presidential election and $500 billion worth of automatic federal spending cuts and tax increases slated for Jan. 1.

"Despite the cautiousness displayed in our forecast for the 2012 holiday season due to the uncertainty about the automatic spending cuts, Congress has a real opportunity to resolve the issue quickly and amicably to assuage consumer fears," Michael P. Niemira, vice president of research and chief economist for ICSC, said in a release. That "could propel this season's performance far above ICSC's current expectations."

Retailers expect to add more than 26,000 seasonal jobs this year, a modest increase over last year, ICSC said.

Another outlook released Tuesday, by Moody's Analytics, expects retail sales in the fourth quarter to grow at the slowest pace since 2009.

"The 2012 holiday season will be a mild disappointment for U.S. retailers expecting significant growth in sales," Scott Hoyt, Moody's senior director of consumer economics, said in the report. "The numbers will rise, but less vigorously than they did a year ago. Consumers are still strapped for cash, with a high unemployment rate and a large pool of workers who have left the labor force."

Consumers have to pay more for gasoline and food, leaving less cash for holiday spending, Hoyt said. And he added they're worried about the effects of the anticipated federal tax increases and spending cuts.

But there is a silver lining.

"Pent up demand from the recession means consumers will spend as much as their finances allow," Hoyt said.

Lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com.