Holiday gift for retailers; sales up a solid 0.4 percent

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There were increases across all retail categories except sporting goods, which was down 0.5% year-over year.

At J.C. Penney, meantime, even an optimistic outlook from CEO Marvin Ellison couldn't buoy the retailer's shares after investors were underwhelmed by the company's 3.4 percent gain for holiday sales. Sales in restaurants and bars rose 0.7 percent, while department and general merchandise stores saw a more modest rise of 0.1 percent.

NRF's numbers are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which reported that overall December sales - including automobiles, gasoline and restaurants - were up 0.4% seasonally adjusted from November and 5.4% year-over-year. "Consumers are still buying, but where they are buying and how they are buying is changing and will continue to evolve as price transparency increases and e-commerce and brick-and-mortar operations of retailers continue to converge into one seamless consumer experience".

Compared to the same month a year ago, retail sales were up by 5.4% in December, reflecting a deceleration from the 6.0% year-over-year growth in November.

Holiday sales during November and December increased 5.5% over the same period in 2016 to $691.9 billion as growing wages, stronger employment and higher confidence led consumers to spend more than had been expected, the National Retail Federation (NRF) said.

Excluding auto sales, retail sales still rose by 0.4% in December after jumping by 1.3% in November. Consumer spending has continued to rise, supported by factors including low unemployment and rising consumer confidence, though the rate of growth has eased in recent years. Nonstore Retailers were up 12.7% from December 2016, while Building Materials and Garden Equipment and Supplies Dealers were up 9.9% from previous year.

Ebullient U.S. consumers shopped at the healthiest pace in more than a decade during the holiday season, a sign of burgeoning economic strength.

As a result, certain retail segments were particularly strong in December. Ellison predicted a rebound in apparel and other categories. Spending for the two months combined was the best since 2005. A few sectors didn't fare as well: Sales fell 1.6 percent at sporting goods stores and 0.3 percent at clothing stores.

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