WASHINGTON – Retail sales rose for a sixth consecutive month in December, with big gains in sales of autos and furniture. The increases lifted sales for the year by the largest amount in more than a decade.
Sales rose 0.6 percent last month to $381 billion, the Commerce Department said Friday. The gain boosted retail sales 13.5 percent above the recession low hit in December 2008.
The string of increases pushed sales for all of 2010 up 6.7 percent, the largest annual increase since 1999.
Separately, the Labor Department said consumer prices rose 0.5 percent in December, the largest increase in 18 months and a reflection of rising gas prices.
But outside of energy costs, there was little sign of widespread inflation. Core inflation, which strips out volatile energy and food, was up just 0.1 percent in December.
And the Federal Reserve said activity last month at the nation's factories, mines and utilities rose 0.8 percent — the biggest increase in five months. Industrial production showed gains in every month but one in 2010.
Consumers, who fuel 70 percent of economic activity, are spending more money and that's a major reason economists expect stronger economic growth this year.
December capped the best holiday shopping season ever on record for retailers in terms of holiday revenue. Holiday 2010 revenue results rose a robust 5.7 percent to $462 billion, according to the National Retail Federation's analysis of government figures.
That marked the biggest percentage increase since 2004, when holiday sales rose 5.9 percent. The holiday 2010 results well surpassed the trade group's forecast of 3.3 percent that was upgraded last month and would have put holiday sales at $451.5 billion, close to the holiday 2007 levels of $452.8 billion.
The figures, which track revenue from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, exclude auto, restaurant and gasoline sales and only includes online sales from physical stores. The numbers are not adjusted for inflation.
But the gains last month were smaller than the previous two. Retailers began their promotional efforts much earlier this year, which may have dampened last month's sales. A major snowstorm in the Northeast after Christmas also cut into demand.
Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said the storms "likely forced consumers to hibernate at home." She noted that the retail category that measures online shopping rose 2.6 percent in December, the biggest increase since April 2008.
There were other exceptions. Auto sales rose 1.1 percent last month, better than the 0.2 percent gain in November.
Excluding autos, retail sales rose 0.5 percent last month.
Sales were also strong at furniture stores, rising 1 percent, and at hardware stores, where they increased 2 percent.
Sales at department stores dropped 1.9 percent and were down 0.7 percent at general merchandise stores, a category which includes such big retailers as Wal-Mart. The December declines in activity compared to big gains in November.
Sales at gasoline stations rose 1.6 percent after a 3.8 percent jump in November. Much of that increase reflected higher pump prices. The retail sales figures are not adjusted for inflation.
The holiday shopping season accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual revenue and profits for retailers.
AP Retail Writer Anne D'Innocenzio in New York contributed to this report.
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