Jan 12, 2012 10:07 AM by Paul Kavanaugh

Record year for retail sales

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Retail sales barely rose in December, but the gain was enough to lift sales to a record level for 2011. It marked the largest annual increase in more than a decade.

Sales inched up 0.1 percent in December to a seasonally adjusted $400.6 billion, The Commerce Department said Thursday. It was the second straight month that sales have topped $400 billion. Never before had monthly sales reached that level.

The government revised the November sales to show a stronger 0.4 percent gain - twice the original estimate. That pushed sales in November above $400 billion on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Separately, weekly applications for unemployment benefits spiked to a seasonally adjusted 399,000, the Labor Department said. But the gain was largely because companies let go of thousands of workers after the holiday season.

Economists said such a jump is typical in early January and downplayed the increase. It followed three months of steady declines that had brought applications to their lowest level in more than three years.

For all of 2011, retail sales totaled a record $4.7 trillion, a gain of nearly 8 percent over 2010. It was the largest percentage increase since 1999

Steady sales gains have fueled a 20 percent surge from the low during the recession. Monthly sales are even 6 percent above their pre-recession high.

The figures confirm evidence that the economy was strengthening as 2011 ended.

One caveat: Many retailers said they had to offer steep discounts in December to attract holiday shoppers.

Those discounts showed up in weaker department store sales. They fell 0.2 percent in December. A broader category that includes department stores like Macy's and big chains such as Wal-Mart and Target showed an even larger decline last month: 0.8 percent.



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