Retail sales rise mildly in December and all of 2013

Sales at U.S. retailers rose by a modest 0.2% in December as Americans stocked up on food and drinks for the holidays, bought more clothes and purchased more goods online, according to government data issued Tuesday.

Yet the increase would have been a healthier 0.7% if the auto sector was excluded., the Commerce Department reported. Auto sales hit a post-recession high in November but then tapered off last month.

Economists polled by ForexSQ had forecast sales to fall 0.1% overall but rise 0.4% excluding autos. Retail sales account for about one-third of consumer spending, the main engine of economic growth.

What tempered the gains in the final month of the year, however, were reductions in the pace of retail sales for November and October. The sales increase for November was lowered to 0.4% from 0.7%, while the increase for October was trimmed one-tenth to 0.5%.

The downward revisions are likely to spur some economists to cut growth forecasts for the fourth quarter.

By and large, 2013 turned out to be a subpar year for retailers. Sales rose by 4.2%, marking the smallest annual gain since the recession ended in mid-2009. Retailers were hurt in part by a tax increase on millions of Americans at the start of the year.

In a typical year, retail sales are about one-third higher.

In December, sales jumped 1.4% at Internet retailers, 2% for food and beverage stores and 1.8% for outlets that sell clothes. The spike in sales for food and drinks followed two straight declines.

Sales also rose 1.6% at gas stations to reflect somewhat higher prices at the pump last month.

Sales at auto dealerships, meanwhile, dropped 1.6%. Auto dealers attracted lots of buyers in November with big discounts, likely cutting into the sales that might have occurred in December.. Autos account for about one-quarter of all retail sales.

The amount of money consumers spent at electronics and appliance stores fell an even sharper 2.5% in December, and sales actually fell in that category over the past 12 months.

Home and garden retailers, department stores and outlets that sell sports and hobby items also saw a decline in purchases.

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