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Retail Sales Flat And That Ain't Bad

Consumers may be despondent, but it's not keeping them out of the stores.

Retail sales were unchanged in October at a seasonally adjusted $301.7 billion, despite a 1.9 percent drop in auto sales, the Commerce Department estimated Thursday.

Excluding autos, sales rose 0.7 percent to $230 billion, the biggest gain in six months.

Sales at clothing stores jumped 4 percent, the largest increase since December. Sales at department stores rose 1.2 percent, the largest gain in 14 months.

The figures exceeded expectations of Wall Street economists, who were forecasting a 0.2 percent drop in total sales.

The state of the consumer has been Topic A in policymaking circles. The Federal Reserve cut its overnight lending target by a half percentage point last week, largely as insurance against a pullback by consumers.

Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of final demand. Retail sales alone account for a third of final sales.

Fed chief Alan Greenspan told Congress on Wednesday that the Fed is concerned that the recent slowdown in consumer spending might be a sign of a further weakening in the economy as the nation struggles to recover from last year's recession.

Or, Greenspan said, the slowdown could be just a normal "payback" from the earlier strong auto sales.

Thursday's data support the more benign view that the nine-year low in consumer confidence won't be felt in the spending figures.

In separate reports, the Labor Department said its four-week average of initial jobless claims fell by 6,000 to 397,000, the lowest since Aug. 24. Claims in the most recent week fell 8,000 to 388,000. The moving average for continuing claims also fell to a two-month low of 3.58 million.

Also, the department said import prices rose 0.1 percent in October.

Retail sales in September fell a revised 1.3 percent, slightly worse than the first estimate. Total sales are down 0.7 percent from last October, when consumers reacted favorably to unprecedented deals from the automakers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

So far in 2002, sales are up 3.4 percent from the first 10 months of 2001. The figures are not adjusted for price changes.

In October, sales at gas stations rose 1.5 percent even as prices at the pump were little changed. Sales at furniture stores fell 0.1 percent while sales at electronics stores rose 0.1 percent. Sales at hardware stores rose 0.5 percent.

Sales at food stores increased 0.2 percent, while sales at restaurants and bars fell 0.8 percent. Sales at drug stores rose 0.4 percent.

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