By Associated Press Utah retailers may have a merrier Christmas than merchants elsewhere in the nation, whose sales have flagged amid predictions of recession.

A spot check of shopping malls on Christmas Eve indicated holiday sales are up from last year."Our sales for December 1989 were 25 percent above December 1988, and it looks like this year's Christmas season will be as much as 10 percent better than the Christmas season last year," said Doug O'Brien, general manager of Fashion Place Mall.

"People started shopping earlier this year, then we went through a slowdown in early December, and the last few days we have seen record crowds," said Tracy Merrill of Cottonwood Mall.

ZCMI Center officials also indicated sales were brisk, outdistancing those of last year.

The news from Salt Lake paints a rosier report than the one emerging from other parts of the country.

Nationally, when all of the receipts are tallied, Christmas sales are likely to be unchanged or barely above last year, a poor season for retailers who couldn't overcome consumer worries about the economy and the Middle East.

Shopping traffic was slow at many stores and malls this season and consumers who did shop bought selectively. High-profile retailing companies around the country complained their Monday sales were a disappointment.

Walter Loeb, president of a national retail consulting firm, said the record crowds in stores across the nation the past few days will not overcome the slow business those stores did throughout the month of December.

"Even with the extra Monday before Christmas, stores cannot make up for what they have lost so far," Loeb said.

He said the weak season would seal "what is probably going to end up as a very poor year for the retail industry."

In November, which usually marks the beginning of the holiday season, retail sales fell 0.1 percent, according to government figures.

Even if department stores report a substantial increase in sales over the final days leading up to Christmas, it "will not be enough to rescue this Christmas season," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report. "That's out of the question," he said.

He estimated overall retail sales would be 1 percent to 2 percent below last year's levels for the Christmas season.

But not in Utah.

"Sales have held pretty steady from what they were during the Christmas season last year, except for the last couple of days. The last couple of days have seen big increases, maybe record crowds," said Sherman Payne of ZCMI Center.

Even if sales this year only match those of 1989, last year's pace was 9 percent better than the year before with a December volume of around $25 million, Payne said.

Dell Stokes of the ZCMI department store said while the number of sales might be down, people seem to be buying better quality goods at a higher price, so the dollar volume has not suffered in comparison to previous years.

"In the ready-to-wear items, people seem to be buying the higher-priced, more durable items," he said.

In other areas of the store, he noted that "jewelry has done well. Furs have not done well. Fragrances and cosmetics have done very well."

Meantime, Craig Costa of TLC Pastries said the catering business has not suffered from the recession this year in Utah, although national reports indicate company parties were down.

He said the number of parties have kept most caterers busy enough "that we have recommended each other to customers at will."

But he said the items used at the parties are less expensive than in past years.

Utah retailers have not felt the pain of their counterparts elsewhere probably because Utah itself has been an anomaly in the national economic picture.

As KeyCorp economist Jeff K. Thredgold said in his year-end economic report for the state: "Utah economic performance during 1990 has ranked with the best of the 50 states. Solid Utah economic growth has been characterized by strong job creation, low unemployment, rising income levels, increased home construction and home sales activity, and continued state budget surpluses.

"The recessionary tendencies of much of the nation have, as yet, had only minimal impact upon the Utah economy," Thredgold said.