Washington (AFP) - US retail sales rose slightly in December over America's crucial holiday shopping season, beating what had been gloomy expectations, government data released Tuesday showed.
The Commerce Department said retail and food services sales totalled $431.9 billion, up 0.2 percent from November.
Consumer spending is the prime driver of the US economy, so there was concern when analysts forecast flat retail sales month-over-month in December.
"It is unclear how much of the weakness is attributable to the cold weather in much of the country in December. While housing-related sales were weak, restaurant sales held up," said Scott Hoyt of Moody's Analytics.
Excluding auto sales, retail sales in December were up 0.7 percent, according to the adjusted data that does not take into account price changes.
Sales of motor vehicles and parts fell 1.8 percent, almost wiping out the 1.9 percent gain in November.
Food and beverage stores scored the strongest gain, with sales up 2.0 percent, the largest increase in seven years.
Spending at clothing and accessories stores rose 1.8 percent, while gasoline sales rose 1.6 percent amid rising prices at the pump.
Sales at electronics and appliance stores saw the largest decline, falling 2.5 percent.
Department store demand fell 0.7 percent.
There was weakness in the housing-related retail sector, with sales falling 0.4 percent in furniture and building material stores.
Online retailers were a bright spot, posting a 1.4 percent gain in sales.
"This report confirms that this holiday shopping season was not very kind to many retailers. Heavy discounting and weak foot traffic hurt many retailers on the per unit margins," said Chris Christopher of IHS Global Insight.
The report gave a modestly weaker than expected picture of retail spending in the fourth quarter, which rose a modest 1.0 percent from the year-ago period. Retail sales increases were revised downward to 0.5 percent in October and 0.4 percent in November.
On a 12-month basis, December sales were up 4.1 percent. For the full year of 2013, total sales were up 4.2 percent, slowing from a 5.2 percent gain in 2012.
Retail sales are a smaller component of consumer spending than spending on services, the sector that makes up bulk of the US economy.
Jim O'Sullivan at High Frequency Economics said the details of the December retail sales report pointed to an improvement in consumer spending for the fourth quarter.
"We estimate the data are consistent with total real consumption, including services, rising at just under 4.0 percent at an annual rate in Q4, down from a 4.4 percent pace through November -- as currently reported -- but up sharply from 2.0 percent in Q3," O'Sullivan said in a research note.
The economist said that estimate supported his firm's projection of overall 3.0 percent economic growth in the final quarter.