Shoppers like these who turned out Nov. 23 — Black Friday — in Roseville, Calif., helped give the holiday season a strong start. Analysts say sales have fallen back since then.

Randall Benton, Associated Press

U.S. retail sales rose in November

  • Associated Press
  • December 13, 2012 - 8:54 PM

WASHINGTON - U.S. consumers shook off superstorm Sandy last month and stepped up holiday shopping, helped by a steady job market and lower gas prices.

Retail sales rose 0.3 percent in November from October, reversing the previous month's decline. Sales increased mostly because Americans spent more online, bought more electronics and began to replace cars and rebuild after the storm.

And a sharp drop in gas prices lowered the overall increase. Excluding gas stations, retail sales rose a solid 0.8 percent, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Still, department store sales fell. And consumer confidence has slipped in recent weeks, raising concerns that some people may be growing worried about looming tax increases. That could dampen December sales. Many retailers depend on the two months of holiday shopping for about 40 percent of their annual revenue.

High unemployment and weak wage growth have kept consumers cautious about spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic growth. Most economists expect just slim gains in consumer spending in the final three months of the year.

"Despite the positive numbers today ... we are not in a consumer-led recovery," said Chris Christopher, an economist at IHS Global Insight.

At the same time, the Labor Department's weekly report on applications for unemployment benefits showed a decline, suggesting the job market is improving, which could set the stage for more spending next year.

Consumers are also seeing relief at the gas pump, which leaves them more disposable income. Gas prices have fallen almost 50 cents over the past two months, to a nationwide average of $3.30 a gallon, according to AAA.

Another report suggested those declines will likely continue. Wholesale gas prices fell 10.1 percent in November, the Labor Department said.

Economists saw mixed signals for the holiday shopping season in the latest retail sales data. Online and catalog shopping rose 3 percent, the biggest gain in 13 months. But department store sales fell 0.8 percent. And Americans spent less at stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

Additionally, a survey last week found Americans' confidence is weakening, with many starting to worry about the fiscal cliff.

The season got off to a strong start over the Thanksgiving Day holiday. Shoppers hit stores and clicked on websites in record numbers, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation.

But since the Black Friday weekend, sales have been disappointing, analysts say.

Retailers are facing many of the same issues they faced last year. Shoppers who splurged over the Thanksgiving weekend are now holding out for better deals and waiting for their bank accounts to recover.

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