US consumers increased their spending at retail businesses in December, buying more autos, furniture, and clothing. Steady job growth and lower gas prices kept consumers shopping for the holidays, despite worries about potential tax increases. The Commerce Department said today that retail sales rose 0.5% in December from November, slightly better than November's 0.4% increase and the best showing since September.
Car companies closed out their best sales year since 2007, leading all categories with a 1.6% sales jump. Total retail spending was even stronger when factoring out a drop in gas prices; exclude that, and they increased 0.8%. The retail sales report is the government's first look at consumer spending, which drives roughly 70% of economic activity. Earlier this month, major retailers reported that a last-minute surge in spending helped salvage the crucial holiday shopping season, which often accounts for as much as 40% of their annual revenue. (Read more retail sales stories.)