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VOL. 127 | NO. 31 | Wednesday, February 15, 2012

January Retail Sales Gain Points to Modest Growth

CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER | AP Economics Writer

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Americans rebounded from a weak holiday season and stepped up spending on retail goods in January. The latest government report on retail sales pointed to a slowly improving economy.

Retail sales rose at a seasonally adjusted 0.4 percent last month, the Commerce Department said Tuesday.

Consumers spent more on electronics, home and garden supplies, sporting goods, at department and general merchandise stores and at restaurants and bars. They also paid higher prices for gas.

Spending on autos fell in January, the report showed, even though automakers had previously reported higher sales last month. That could mean that dealers offered more discounts to attract buyers.

The January retail sales figures were an improvement from December, which were downwardly revised to show a flat reading. And excluding autos, building materials and gasoline station sales, core retail spending jumped 0.7 percent.

The "retail sales data are better than they look, but they don't suggest that consumption growth is about to set the economic recovery alight," Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note to clients.

The government's retail sales report is its first look each month at consumer spending, which represents 70 percent of economic activity. The positive data suggest that hiring gains have boosted confidence and are encouraging more people to spend.

Higher retail sales have also prompted companies to increase the pace in which they restock their shelves.

Business stockpiles rose 0.4 percent in December, a separate Commerce report showed. Faster growth in inventories was a key reason the economy expanded at its best pace at the end of last year. Still, some economists expect the restocking to slow early this year.

Economists had expressed concerns that consumers might pull back on spending this year because their wages hadn't kept pace with inflation. And many consumers relied on savings to make up the difference.

The retail sales report shows consumers are managing to increase spending at the same pace they did late last year, despite only small gains in pay.

"The good news is that the strong January gain establishes that the consumer trend is not folding," said Pierre Ellis, an economist at Decision Economics.

Retail sales have risen about 21 percent since hitting a recession low. And they're nearly 6 percent above their pre-recession high.

January sales might have been stronger if auto sales hadn't dropped 1.1 percent. That was a surprise after most dealers reported sales increases last month.

The government's auto sales figures and the automakers' numbers don't always match up. And dealers may have also offered discounts in order to boost sales. Low interest rates, better loan availability and new car models have helped drive sales higher in the last three months.

Sales at gasoline stations rose 1.4 percent last month, the most in 10 months. Gas prices have risen steadily in recent months. The average price for a gallon of gas was $3.51 on Tuesday, up 12 cents from a month earlier.

One encouraging sign: consumers spent much more at general merchandise stores, a category that includes big chains such as Wal-Mart and Target, and at department stores such as Macy's. Sales at those stores jumped 2 percent, after declining 0.7 percent in December.

And Americans are spending more at restaurants and bars, which reported a 0.6 percent increase in sales.

Sales at online and catalog retailers fell 1.1 percent, the most in almost two years. Shoppers likely pulled back after the holiday shopping season.

Consumers are taking on more debt after cutting back immediately after the recession. Consumer borrowing, which includes credit cards, auto loans, and student loans, posted the biggest monthly gains in a decade in November and December. The increases could mean that consumers are more confident about the economy.

Hiring has picked up in recent months, which could support more spending. Employers added 243,000 net jobs last month, the fifth straight month of solid hiring. The unemployment rate fell in January to 8.3 percent, the fifth straight monthly decline.

More jobs have helped boost growth. The economy expanded at an annual rate of 2.8 percent in the final three months of last year.

Growth may slow a bit from that pace in the first three months of this year, in part because of the anticipated decline in inventory growth. Many economists forecast growth of between 2 percent and 2.5 percent this year.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 242 14,959
MORTGAGES 0 255 19,585
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 43 3,838
BUILDING PERMITS 0 512 35,842
BANKRUPTCIES 0 182 14,216
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 104 5,095
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 246 21,679
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 75 4,632

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