Retail sales increased at an 11.3% annual rate in the fourth quarter, the strongest since the first quarter of 2000. Better-than-expected sales could mean spending will stay strong enough to help the economy emerge from recession faster in coming months.
The decrease in sales reflects declines in automobile and gasoline sales, while business increased at electronics, clothing and furniture stores, according to the government's report.
Analysts expected December retail sales to fall to $289.9 billion after November's previously reported 3.7% decrease.
The value of sales at gasoline stations fell 4.2% in December. The average price at the pump for all grades fell 6.6% to $1.13 a gallon from November's average of $1.21, according to data from the Energy Department. The average price fell to $1.10 a gallon for the week ended December 17, the lowest since March 1999.
The department's data also shows the average price at the pump for a gallon of diesel fell from $1.194 to $1.169 during December. The average price at the beginning of November was $1.30. Yesterday's price was $1.159.
The National Retail Federation yesterday projected retail sales will rise to 3.7% in 2002, which would be more than double the sales increase of last year.