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US retail sales rise 0.8%, driven by online and gas sales

Retail sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.8% in November, driven by strong online shopping and gasoline sales during the first half of the holiday season, according to a report released by the U.S. Commerce Department on Dec. 14.

The increase in overall sales to $492.72 billion month over month beat economists' expectations, due in large part to a significant increase in sales from nonstore retailers, which includes online shopping. Sales at nonstore retailers rose 2.5% month over month to $53.73 billion in November.

Scott Hoyt, senior director for Moody's Analytics, said in an interview that Moody's had forecast 0.3% growth for total retail sales in November.

"It's a real impressive number," Hoyt said. "It was a sign of the strength of online shopping."

"Not only did sales growth comfortably exceed expectations, we had strong upward revisions to the prior month as well," he added.

Commerce revised its overall October sales figure to a 0.5% increase to $488.86 billion from the previously estimated 0.2% rise to $486.60 billion.

Eleven of the 13 types of businesses measured in the monthly report saw gains in November, with the exceptions being motor vehicles parts and dealers, whose sales fell 0.2% to $102.45 billion, and general merchandise stores, where sales remained flat at $58.33 billion.

Gasoline sales, which experienced an "atypical" 1.2% drop in October, were up 2.8% in November to $40.46 billion, Hoyt said, noting that the increase was largely price driven.

Other segments seeing strong sales in November were electronics and appliance stores, which saw an increase of 2.1% to $8.38 billion; furniture and home furnishings stores, which posted a rise of 1.2% to $10.02 billion; and building material and garden equipment and supplies dealers, whose sales rose 1.2% to $32.91 billion.

The strong sales across the board were also partly driven by a 0.9% increase in sales to $7.28 billion at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, and a 0.2% rise to $60.81 billion at food and beverage stores.

Year over year, the November $492.72 billion sales figures marked a 5.8% increase over November 2016.

The "Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services" report, released monthly by the Commerce Department, is based on responses from roughly 4,700 retailers. The December monthly report is scheduled for release Jan. 12.