U.S. retail sales rose 0.3 percent in November

WASHINGTON — Americans spent more online in November to the start of the holiday season and began to replace cars and rebuild in the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy.

U.S. retail sales rose 0.3 percent in November from October, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That offset a 0.3 percent decline in October from September.

The figures were much stronger after factoring out gas prices, which have fallen sharply in recent months. When excluding gas station sales, retail sales increased a solid 0.8 percent.

The gains were widespread, although much of the strength reflected a rebound from the storm. Auto sales jumped 1.5 percent, as many people sought to replace damaged vehicles. Sales at home improvement stores increased 1.6 percent.

There was also an indication that many Americans began shopping for the holidays, most likely taking advantage of promotions during the Thanksgiving Day weekend. Electronic and appliance sales rose 2.5 percent. Furniture sales increased 1 percent. And sales that reflect online shopping surged 3 percent — the biggest gain for that category in 13 months.

Still, there were also troubling signs for the holiday shopping season: Department stores sales dropped 0.8 percent. And sales at general merchandise stores, a broader category that includes Wal-Mart and Target, fell 0.9 percent.

Some economists worry that consumers might scale back on holiday shopping if they are concerned about the “fiscal cliff.” That’s the name for tax hikes and spending cuts that are scheduled to go into effect next year if Congress and President Barack Obama cannot reach a deal to avert them.

The retail sales report is the government’s first look at consumer spending. Consumer spending is important because it drives nearly 70 percent of economic activity.

The economy grew at a solid 2.7 percent annual rate in the July-September quarter. But the gains were mostly because businesses stepped up restocking, which drove more factory production.

Consumer spending actually slowed over the summer from the previous quarter. And many economists worry that consumers have remained cautious in the final three months of the year, because of the storm and their fears about higher taxes next year. That should keep growth below an annual rate of 2 percent in the October-December quarter, they say.

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