WASHINGTON — America’s retailers enjoyed a record 2011 and their first $400 billion sales months ever. But the final month of the year was a dud.
Sales eked out a 0.1 percent increase in December, lifting sales to a seasonally adjusted $400.6 billion.
It was the second straight month that sales have topped $400 billion. The government revised November sales to show a 0.4 percent gain, twice the original estimate. That pushed that month’s sales above $400 billion.
For all of 2011, sales totaled a record $4.7 trillion. That was a gain of nearly 8 percent over 2010 — the largest percentage increase since 1999.
Steady sales gains have fueled a 20 percent surge from the low during the Great Recession. Monthly sales are even 6 percent above their pre-recession high. The figures confirm evidence that the economy was strengthening as 2011 ended.
Still, December’s increase was the weakest in seven months. Excluding volatile auto purchases, overall sales actually fell 0.2 percent. It was the first such drop since May 2010.
Part of the reason was lower gasoline prices. Those prices reduced sales at gasoline stations by 1.6 percent. Excluding gas stations, overall retail sales would have risen 0.3 percent in December.
Another factor was heavy discounting during the holiday shopping season. Many retailers said they had to cut prices in December to attract shoppers.
Separately, more people applied for unemployment benefits last week, the government said. Applications rose 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 399,000. But the gain largely was due to companies letting go of workers after the holiday season.
Economists downplayed the increase. It followed three months of declines that had reduced the number of unemployment applications to their lowest level in more than three years.
And businesses increased their stockpiles in November to meet rising consumer demand. That gain likely boosted economic growth in the final months of 2011. Companies are rebuilding stockpiles after cutting them last summer amid fears of another recession. It means many anticipate higher consumer spending.
The government’s report on retail sales showed that holiday discounts weakened department store sales. They fell 0.2 percent in December. A broader category that includes department stores like Macy’s and big chains such as Walmart showed an even larger drop last month: 0.8 percent.
Compared with the same time last year, retail sales have risen 6.4 percent.
An earlier survey of 25 major retail chains by the International Council of Shopping Centers found that revenue in December at stores open at least a year rose 3.5 percent over the same month a year ago.
That survey’s figures aren’t adjusted for seasonal changes; the government’s sales figures are. The government report also is a broader gauge. It covers purchases at all retailers, not just at major national chains. It also includes auto dealerships, restaurants and bars, grocery stores and gasoline stations.
Though December’s retail sales were disappointing, analysts said they still expect consumers to help the economy strengthen further, especially because businesses have stepped up hiring. More jobs mean more people with money to spend.
“Although consumer spending is not particularly robust, households do continue to spend and provide moderate support for the overall economy,” said Steven Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics.