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December retail sales slip 0.3% from November, Commerce Department reports

January 14, 2010 |  3:49 pm

The Commerce Department said retail sales fell last month, a surprising development given that many major retailers have been reporting relatively healthy holiday results.

Retail sales in December totaled $353 billion, a 0.3% decline from November, the government said today. For the full year, total sales fell 6.2% over 2008.

“While the overall trend is in the right direction, today’s retail sales data show that we have more work to do,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in a statement.

The mixed messages coming out of the industry underscore the tentative nature of the retail recovery and indicate that the process could be a long one.

“When it was all done, I couldn’t tell what the numbers really were for retail,” said Britt Beemer, chairman of consumer behavior firm America’s Research Group. “I think it just reflects a real lack of confidence that the consumer has.”

With so much of the economic turnaround depending on consumer spending, economists are anxiously waiting for shoppers to buy freely and consistently. But economists say a number of factors — the unemployment picture chief among them — could continue to hamper spending for months.

Several categories performed worse in December compared with November, including electronics and appliance sellers (down 2.6%), clothing and clothing accessories stores (down 0.6%) and general merchandise retailers (down 0.8%).

On a year-over-year basis, December sales increased 5.4%, the Commerce Department said. Its results give a broad view of the industry, including not just traditional chain stores but also car dealers, gas stations, building material sellers and grocery stores.

Last week, major retailers posted a 2.9% sales increase in December compared with a year earlier, easily beating expectations for a 2% rise, according to Thomson Reuters’ tally of 30 major chain stores.

It was the biggest December gain since 2006 and the best monthly showing since April 2008.

Retailers such as Saks Inc., Kohl’s Corp. and Costco Wholesale Corp. posted sales increases.

-- Andrea Chang