NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Retail sales edged up in November, a government report showed Monday, with the report on the start of the holiday shopping season coming in a bit better than Wall Street expectations.
The Commerce Department report showed overall sales up 0.1 percent in November compared to October, when sales rose a revised 0.8 percent. The revision was a big jump from the 0.2 percent gain originally reported for October.
Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast that retail sales would be unchanged in November.
Excluding weak auto sales in the period, retail sales rose 0.5 percent, following a revised 1.1 percent rise in October. Briefing.com's survey found a consensus forecast of a 0.3 percent increase in that reading.
Economists said the report showed that consumer spending is stronger than suggested by individual retailers' sales reports, which have often been disappointing so far this holiday season.
"The American consumer is like that bad guy in a zombie movie; shoot him; stab him. He keeps coming forward," said Robert Brusca of FAO Economics. "But in the case of the consumer, it's more like: depress his wage, make him unemployed, ruin his confidence make no job growth, lower his savings rate -- none of it matters, he or she just keeps on racking up those charges."
Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wachovia Securities, said that reports such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (Research), the world's largest retailer, posting less than a 1 percent gain in November sales were misleading because that focused on sales at stores open at least a year, a closely watched retail measure known as same-store sales.
"They're only mediocre if you're a securities analyst, not if you're a real person," said Vitner. "The successful retailers are opening stores like mad. That may steal sales from existing stores of their own as well as other retailers. But the overall pie is growing. I'm an economist; I focus on the pie, I don't care how they slice it."
Vitner said if retail sales stay unchanged in December, then overall holiday sales, which is retail sales excluding gas stations, grocery stores and auto dealers, should be up about 7.4 percent compared to last year. Even if holiday sales fall slightly in December, they should easily top earlier forecasts.
Much of the upward revision in the October number came from changes in sales estimates for two types of stores, gasoline stations, which posted a 5.3 percent gain in October sales rather than the 4.3 percent increase in the original report, and building materials and garden equipment stores, which was unchanged in October rather than the 1.1 percent decline originally reported.
Stronger than expected consumption of gasoline in the face of rising prices and repairs from four major hurricanes that hit the Southeast United States probably accounted for much of those revisions, according to Vitner.