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Retail sales fall for 5th straight month
CNN
By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer
Last Updated: December 12, 2008: 9:24 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Retail sales fell for the fifth straight month in November as mounting job losses last month curbed consumers' ability and willingness to spend money in stores.

The Commerce Department said Friday that retail sales fell 1.8% last month, compared with a revised 2.9% drop in October, the worst monthly sales on record. October sales were originally reported to have tumbled 2.8%.

Economists surveyed by Briefing.com on average had forecast a decrease of 2% for November.

November is a crucial sales month for retailers since it marks the start of the important holiday shopping season. Combined sales for November and December can account for as much as 50% of merchants' annual profits and sales.

Sales excluding autos and auto parts fell 1.6% in November, compared to a revised 2.4% drop in October. Ex-auto sales were originally reported to have fallen 2.2% in October.

Economists had forecasted a decrease of 1.8% in the measure, according to Briefing.com.

"The numbers were a little bit better and that was expected because September and October were so bad," Michael Niemira, chief economist with the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).

To his point, taking out the auto and gasoline station sales last month, core retail sales actually increased 0.3%, which was the first increase in that component since July.

The government report showed auto sales fell 2.8% last month. The sharp pullback in gasoline prices led to a deep 14.7% drop in sale at the pump.

But elsewhere, the report showed sales gains across retail categories. Electronics stores reported a 2.8% increase last month, sales at health and personal care stores rose 1%, clothing sellers registered a 0.8% sales gain, sales at sporting goods stores also increased 2.8%.

And department stores logged a 2.1% sales gain while general merchandise sellers reported a 1.2% increase in November sales.

Still, Niemira said these gains need to be measured against very big drops in both September and October.

"I think this is more of a technical bounce in the numbers as a result of much easier month-over-month comparisons, and it doesn't really reflect any fundamental improvement in consumer spending," he said.

Niemira's theory is supported by ongoing weakness in another gauge - same-store sales. Leading store chains, with the exception of discounter Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500), reported declines in their November sales at stores open at least a year, which is a key measure of retail performance known as same-store sales.

First Published: December 12, 2008: 8:34 AM ET

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