Consumers shelled out 0.2% more for retail purchases in December than in the previous month, the government said, with the final tally of the holiday season showing a solid, if unexceptional, performance.
Shoppers braved bitter cold in much of the country to spend $431.9 billion on items such as cars, clothing, gasoline and food, up 4.1% from December 2012, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday.
The final month of the holidays found a fair number of shoppers turning up at traditional stores — and increasingly on the Internet — eager to tap the deep discounts and eleventh-hour bargains being offered.
Overall, retail sales in November and December rose 3.8% from a year earlier as consumers spent $601.8 billion at stores and websites, according to the National Retail Federation.
The numbers came in a hair under the trade group's expectations for a 3.9% boost to $602 billion in sales, but ahead of 2012's 3.5% holiday sales growth.
"Retail sales have been volatile all year, and the holiday shopping season was no exception," Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist of the retail federation, said in a statement Tuesday.
Economists keep a close eye on consumer spending because it makes up some 70% of U.S. economic activity.
In balmy Southern California on a recent January day, Ravi Guru was partaking in a semiregular pastime: strolling through stores in Old Pasadena.
Shopping is "almost like a hobby," said the 36-year-old physician, who professed to owning more shoes than does his wife. The couple spent more during the holidays than in the 2012 season, buying gifts for friends, he said.
All the while, Guru abided by a key shopping rule: "I almost never buy anything at its original price," he said, clutching a pair of half-off Zara trousers and a pair of shoes from the store that had been marked down to $49 from $200. "It has to be on sale."
The holiday season was a spectacularly promotional one, with many retailers kicking off seasonal discounts soon after Halloween. As a result, many shoppers wrapped up much of their gift-buying before December.
So-called core retail sales — which strip out the 1.8% decline in sales of vehicles and car parts — rose 0.7% from November, the Commerce Department said. That was the largest increase in several months.
But November sales were revised down to a 0.4% increase from October after previously being calculated as a 0.7% upswing.
The holiday sales numbers signal a sense of stability in the retail industry — but possibly at the expense of retailers' profitability, said Laura Gurski, a partner and retail expert at consulting firm A.T. Kearney.
"Consumers had a fabulous holiday season, since most merchandise was heavily promoted and discounted," she said. "And you could shop various channels and there was an awful lot of free shipping out there."
Some categories ended the year strong. The food and beverage sector saw sales swell 2% in December. Higher fuel prices led to a 1.6% boost in gas sales. Shivering shoppers rushed to buy winter gear, helping clothing sales swing up 1.8%.
But early discounting might have hurt December results for vendors selling sporting goods, books and music. That category's sales slumped 0.6%. Department store revenue slipped 0.7% from November and 3.3% from December 2012.
Electronics and appliance merchants suffered a 2.5% sales decline.
"The market has been really saturated with devices and TVs," Gurski said. "Unless there's a very significant broad-based innovation, it's very difficult to move the needle on this category."
The e-commerce growth rate more than doubled that of the overall retail sector, according to the NRF trade group, which said that digital revenue soared 9.3% over the holiday to $95.7 billion.