WASHINGTON -- U.S. retail sales rose solidly in November, adding to signs of a strengthening economy that could draw the Federal Reserve closer to reducing the pace of monetary stimulus.
The upbeat economic picture was clouded somewhat by another report Thursday showing the biggest jump in a year in first-time applications for unemployment benefits last week.
The Commerce Department said retail sales increased 0.7 percent last month as Americans bought automobiles and a range of other goods. November's retail sales increase was the largest in five months and followed a 0.6 percent rise in October.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales, which account for about 30 percent of consumer spending, advancing 0.6 percent after a previously reported 0.4 percent gain in October.
"It should provide more confidence to the Fed that the economic recovery has emerged from the political-induced uncertainties of recent months essentially unscathed and reinforce the expectation for the recent improved performance in the data to be sustained," said Millan Mulraine, senior economist at TD Securities (TD) in New York.
So-called core sales, which strip out automobiles, food services, gasoline and building materials and correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%rose 0.5 percent after gaining 0.7 percent in October. That suggested consumer spending would likely step up from a two-year low touched in the third quarter.
Spending is being supported by solid employment gains and steady income increases, which could help limit the drag on fourth-quarter GDP growth from an expected attempt by business to reduce inventories after building them up in the July-September quarter.
But businesses are showing no signs of pulling back just yet. In a second report, the Commerce Department said business inventories increased 0.7 percent in October, the largest gain since January, after rising 0.6 percent in September.
Lower gasoline prices are also helping, though they are a drag on retail sales figures, which aren't adjusted for inflation.
U.S. stock index futures reversed losses on the retail sales data, while Treasury debt prices extended losses. The dollar rose against the euro and the yen.
But the firming growth tone was tempered somewhat by a separate report from the Labor Department showing initial claims for state unemployment benefits surged 68,000 to a seasonally adjusted 368,000 last week.
That was the largest weekly increase since November 2012 and surpassed economist expectations for a rise to only 320,000. However, the four-week moving average for new claims, which irons out week-to-week volatility, rose only 6,000, suggesting that a recent strengthening of the jobs market remains intact.
"I would be heavily dismissive of the latest number. It was heavily distorted by the holiday. You had a low-ball number last week and a high one this week. You have to take the two weeks together," said Jacob Oubina, senior economist at RBC Securities in New York.
A Labor Department analyst said seasonal volatility, including a late Thanksgiving, made it difficult adjusting the data for seasonal variations.
Nonfarm payrolls increased solidly in October and November. The unemployment rate hit a five-year low of 7 percent in November.
The steady stream of fairly upbeat data should give the Fed cover to start cutting back its monthly $85 billion bond buying program soon, and could fuel some speculation a move could come as early as the central bank's meeting next week.
Most economists, however, expect the Fed to hold off until January or March. Another report from the Labor Department showed import prices fell for a second straight month in November. The general lack of inflation pressures is a wild card in the Fed's decisions on its monetary stimulus.
Retail sales last month were buoyed by a 1.8 percent jump in receipts at auto and parts dealers. That helped to offset a 1.1 percent drop in sales at gasoline stations.Receipts at building materials and garden equipment stores rebounded 1.8 percent after falling 1.5 percent in October.
There were also gains in receipts at furniture, electronics and sporting goods shops, among others. Sales at electronics and appliance stores rose 1.1 percent, while furniture store sales rose 1.2 percent. However, receipts at clothing stores fell 0.2 percent after rising 2.6 percent in October.
America's Most Popular Stores
Retail Sales Rise, Boost Economic Outlook
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 14.2% Revenue: $73.3 billion 1-year stock price change: 27.56% Store category: Discount & variety stores
Target (TGT) was the second most-visited discount retailer in the U.S. during March, behind only Walmart. One reason was the number of Target stores. The company has been attempting to take on Walmart by adding grocery sections to more stores, and by offering groceries at competitive prices. This has helped Target maintain strong financial performance despite the weak economy and its additional spending on its launch in Canada. Most Americans surveyed by the American Customer Satisfaction Index rated Target well: It finished in a three-way tie for second place in the department and discount store category, behind Nordstrom.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 18.2% Revenue: $13.6 billion 1-year stock price change: -3.89% Store category: Fast food
As recently as 2011, Taco Bell (YUM) was struggling to keep competitor Chipotle (CMG) from taking its customers, with flat or negative same-store sales growth in each quarter that year. This changed in early 2012, when Taco Bell released the Doritos Locos taco, a hard taco with the flavor of Doritos nacho chips. That item help the company increase comparable sales in every quarter of 2012, as the company sold more than 1 million of them a day. In March, Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed told The Daily Beast the company had hired 15,000 workers just to meet demand for the Doritos Locos taco in 2012. Last year, the company's sales increased by $1 billion to $11.8 billion, and net income rose by roughly $300 million to $1.6 billion.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 18.9% Revenue: $123.1 billion 1-yr. stock price change: 27.56% Store category: Drugstore
CVS (CVS) is the top provider of prescriptions in the country, filling or managing more than 1 billion prescriptions a year. It has operates in 45 states, and 75% of the people in the markets it serves live within three miles one of the company's 7,400 retail stores. Last year, CVS estimated it gained millions of new customers following a dispute between Walgreens (WAG) and Express Scripts (ESRX), the prescription management service. Even after the dispute was resolved, CVS was able to retain many customers who used to fill prescriptions at Walgreens. In the first quarter of 2013, the company's revenue grew 5%, as same-store sales grew 4%.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 22.7% Revenue: $71.6 billion 1-year stock price change: 42.17% Store category: Drugstore
Despite CVS's gains, Walgreens is still the most visited drugstore in the country. According to RetailSails, the company has the most stores, at 7,890, and the largest average store, at 14,400 square feet, among all drugstore chains. The company's tenure in first place may not last, however, thanks to that now-resolved dispute with Express Scripts. The company spent nearly nine months without using Express Scripts, the largest prescription management service in the country, losing an estimated 60 million prescriptions to rivals. CVS estimates that it will retain roughly half of the Walgreen's customers it gained as a result of the squabble.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 22.8% Revenue: $2.5 billion 1-Year stock price change: 11.84% Store category: Fast food
In 2011, Wendy's (WEN) overall sales surpassed Burger King's, making it the second-largest burger chain in the U.S. But Wendy's growth has actually been quite modest as of late, with same-store sales in North America growing just 1.6% from 2011 to 2012. (In fact, Wendy's first-quarter profit just tumbled 83%.) Wendy's is in the process of remodeling many of its restaurants with more comfortable seating arrangements and flat-screen televisions. However, not all of its stores are getting upgraded. The company announced in March it was going to shutter as many as 130 underperforming stores. Last year, the company also made significant changes in its marketing strategy and menu in order to attract customers who have been lured in by chains such as Panera, which promotes healthier food at slightly higher prices.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 23.9% Revenue: $13.3 billion 1-year stock price change: 12.46% Store category: Coffee
There is a reason Starbucks (SBUX) is No. 1 in the coffee category: Sales in the U.S. grew by nearly 346% between 2001 and 2012, and the number of stores grew by 195%. The company has struggled in the U.S. in the past several years, but its stock has continued to rise as global sales have helped to pick up the slack. Worldwide, Starbucks revenue grew by 7% in 2012 compared to 2011. This included a 15% growth in the Asia/Pacific region. In its early years, the company did not place much emphasis on its food items. However, that has changed in recent years, especially following the purchase of Bay Area pastry chain La Boulangerie. However, some industry analysts remain skeptical of Starbucks' ability to compete for customers' breakfast purchases.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 24.3% Revenue: $2.0 billion 1-year stock price change: N/A Store category: Fast food
The last decade or so has been especially tumultuous for Burger King: It was taken private in two separate instances, in 2002 and in 2010, and became a public company again last June. The company hasn't performed well in years, with an average growth rate of -0.1% between 2001 and 2013, which allowed Wendy's to take its No. 2 burger chain title. A restructuring that began after the second buyout in 2010, in which many stores were sold to franchisees, has cut deeply into the company's sales. But not all news for Burger King is bad news: Nearly one quarter of Americans visited a Burger King in March.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 37.8% Revenue: N/A 1-year stock price change: N/A Store category: Fast food
Between 2001 and 2012, Subway's sales in the U.S. grew nearly 169%, while the number of stores grew nearly 93%. Subway is by far the largest fast food chain in the U.S., with almost 26,000 restaurants. The company has been able to fuel its large growth through both international expansion and a domestic focus on healthy eating, most notably using ads featuring Jared Fogle -- a man who lost an impressive amount of weight while regularly eating the company's sandwiches. In 2013, for the ninth year in a row, Subway received the highest score in the country in a Harris Poll EquiTrend study in the "quick service restaurants" category and was named brand of the year by that group.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 38.8% Revenue: $469.2 billion 1-year stock price change: 34.29% Store category: Discount & variety stores
Walmart (WMT) is by far the largest retailer in the U.S. and in many parts of the world. It was recently ranked No. 1 in the Fortune 500 after it reported more than $469 billion in worldwide revenue in 2012. While international markets are critical to growth, the U.S. market provides the majority of its revenue: U.S. sales comprise 62% of the company's sales. In the last five years, Walmart has added 450 U.S. stores, a 13% increase overall. However, according to Bloomberg, the company's U.S. workforce has dropped 1.4% in that time frame, leading customers to complain about a lack of inventory and longer check-out lines -- and to defect to rivals such as Target and Costco. In February, the American Customer Service Index ranked Walmart the lowest of all discount retailers, the sixth year in a row the chain has held or tied for the last place spot.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 49.0% Revenue: $27.6 billion 1-year stock price change: 6.92% Store category: Fast food<
Almost half of all Americans visited a McDonald's (MCD) in March, but, U.S. sales of $8.8 billion weren't even the company's largest revenue segment last year. Rather it was the company's sales in Europe of $10.8 billion. According to Technomic, McDonald's same-store sales grew at an annualized rate of nearly 5% from 2001 through 2012. However, this has slowed recently: The company's systemwide sales in the United States rose by just 0.3% from the year before in the final quarter of 2012. The company is already so large that its bottom line is deeply linked to global economic conditions, leaving it unable to raise prices for now. In order to boost sales, McDonald's CEO Bob Thompson told CNBC the company may try allowing U.S. stores to serve breakfast all day.