Retail Sales Rose Just 0.1% in December

U.S. retail sales rose slightly in December as lower gas prices and holiday discounts held down the value of goods sold.

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December’s 0.1 percent gain follows a 0.4 percent advance in November retail sales that was more than initially reported. Purchases excluding automobiles fell 0.2 percent in their first decline since May 2010.

Many retailers, from Macy’s (NYSE:M) to American Eagle (NYSE:AEO), resorted to discounting early in the holiday shopping season to buoy sales amid slower wage gains and slumping property values.

Yet spending still eased at the end of the fourth quarter, a trend that could carry through into the New Year.

“Consumers pulled out all the stops to have a decent holiday season, but we’re seeing the momentum from that dropping off,” said Tim Quinlan, an economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC, which correctly forecast the December sales figure. “We suspect the rate of consumer spending will slow.”

December retail sales were projected to accelerate following a previously reported 0.2 percent advance in November. Seventy-five economists surveyed by Bloomberg News varied in their projections from a 0.2 percent decline to a gain of 0.9 percent, with an average forecast of 0.3 percent.

Sales excluding automobiles and services stations were unchanged in December, weaker than the 0.3 percent gain forecast by Bloomberg’s economists.

Seven of the 13 major categories tracked by the Commerce Department showed gains last month, led by a 1.5 percent rise in sales at car dealerships. Purchases rose 1.6 percent at building materials outlets as unseasonably mild weather around the country helped bolster sales.

Furniture outlets, health stores, and apparel retailers also reported sales gains, while purchases at electronics and department stores declined, as did purchases at non-store retailers, including Internet merchants.

Car and light truck sales advanced at a seasonally adjusted 13.5 million in December following a 13.6 million pace in November, according to researcher Autodata Corp.

Ford (NYSE:F) posted a 10 percent gain in sales last month compared to a year earlier, and closed 2011 with 2.15 million light vehicles sold, an 11 percent gain.

Overall, despite a slower advance in December than in November, retail sales climbed 7.7 percent in 2011, following a 6.5 percent gain in 2010, for the strongest sales year since 1999.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Knapp at staff.writers@wallstcheatsheet.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Damien Hoffman at editors@wallstcheatsheet.com