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Jan 12, 8:47 AM EST

Holiday gift for retailers; sales up a solid 0.4 percent


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AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. consumers shopped at stores and online outlets at a solid pace in December, closing out a healthy holiday season for retailers.

The Commerce Department said Friday that retail sales rose 0.4 percent last month, after a 0.9 percent surge in November. Retail sales rose 4.2 percent in 2017, the most in three years.

Strong holiday shopping should lift economic growth in the final three months of last year. Americans have been more confident about the economy and are more willing to spend. The unemployment rate is at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent.

Online retailers reported a strong sales gain of 1.2 percent. Department and general merchandise stores, which include Macy's as well as Target and warehouse clubs, saw sales rise by just 0.1 percent.

Sales at home and garden stores jumped 1.2 percent and increased 0.7 percent at restaurants and bars. A few sectors didn't fare as well: Sales fell 1.6 percent at sporting goods stores and 0.3 percent at clothing stores.

Consumer confidence reached a 17-year high in November, though it slid in December. Spending hasn't risen as much as the increase in confidence would suggest.

Overall consumer spending, which includes spending on services as well as at retailers, increased 2.2 percent in the July-September quarter, after rising 3.3 percent in the April-June quarter. Those are solid figures but not much different from previous years. Overall consumer spending data for the fourth quarter hasn't been released yet.

Still, Americans are lifting their spending faster than incomes are growing. That has lowered savings and lifted credit card debt. Figures from the Federal Reserve show that credit card debt reached a record high in December of $1.02 trillion, though that number isn't adjusted for inflation.

The economy expanded at a 3.2 percent annual rate in the spring and summer, the first time growth topped 3 percent for two quarters since 2014. Economists forecast the economy expanded at a roughly 2.5 percent to 3 percent in the October-December quarter.

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