Could the 2012 holiday shopping season be the best one since the recession? Planners seeking clues to the performance of the U.S. retail sector should consider an industry group’s projection that sales for the November-December time period will increase 4.1% this year.

This is the most optimistic forecast released by the National Retail Federation since the recession. And if it proves right, it would exceed the 10-year average holiday sales increase of 3.5%, according to the federation.

Despite unnerving headlines, consumer habits die hard, analyst Michael Souers, of S&P Capital IQ, says in a newly released report that includes the federation’s forecast. His report also includes a forecast from the International Council of Shopping Centers which predicts a 3% increase in sales at holiday chain stores.

“In this country, most consumers prefer to spend rather than save, and this tends to ring even more true over the holiday season,” according to Souers.

For this reason, Souers suggest that now is a good time to consider buying retail stocks. Aside from the holiday shopping season, he writes, there are other reasons why investors might be interested in retail stocks. On a historical basis, retail stocks - like stocks in general - tend to fare best from October to March. Using data compiled since 1990, the best three months for retail stocks on an absolute basis are: March ( 3.86%), November ( 3.13%) and October ( 1.71), while the three worst are: September (-0.73%), August (-0.67%) and June (-0.66%), according to Souers’ report.