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    December U.S. Retail Sales Better Than Expected

    Sales for 2006 climbed 6.0 percent from 2005.

    NEW YORK -- Dow Jones reported Friday that U.S. retail sales showed surprising strength during December, despite earlier predictions that holiday sales gains would be mild.

    A separate report showed U.S. import prices also rose more than expected last month, boosted by a recovery in imported petroleum prices, according to the Wall Street Journal.

    Retail sales increased by a seasonally adjusted 0.9 percent, the Commerce Department said. November sales rose by 0.6 percent, revised lower from a previously reported 1.0 percent advance.

    Wall Street expected a robust, yet smaller, increase in December sales. The median estimate of 21 economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had overall sales rising 0.7 percent in the final month of fourth-quarter 2006.

    Unadjusted, sales for 2006 climbed 6.0 percent from 2005. That compares to gains of 6.9 percent in 2005, 6.5 percent in 2004 and 4.3 percent in 2003.

    Sales at auto and parts retailers increased 0.3 percent in December, after remaining flat in November. Outside the auto sector, all other retail sales climbed 1.0 percent. Economists expected a 0.5 percent increase. Excluding autos, sales were 0.7 percent higher in November.

    Gasoline-station sales rose 3.8 percent last month after rising 2.9 percent in November.

    Sales rose 1.2 percent at health and personal care stores; 2.3 percent at restaurants and bars; 0.7 percent at food and beverage stores; 3.0 percent at electronics and appliance stores; 0.9 percent at general merchandise stores; 0.3 percent at mail-order and Internet retailers; 0.7 percent at furniture stores; and 0.6 percent at clothing stores. Sales fell 1.1 percent at building-material and garden stores and 0.1 percent at sporting goods, hobby and book stores.

    U.S. import prices rose 1.1 percent last month and were revised to a 0.5 percent gain for November, the Labor Department said. The December increase was the largest since a 1.8 percent jump in May last year and larger than economists had expected. According to a survey by Dow Jones Newswires, economists had pegged last month's gain at 0.8 percent.

    For the year 2006, import prices increased 2.5 percent, a slowdown from the 8.0 percent increase posted in 2005.

    Petroleum import prices rose 4.8 percent last month, after three straight months of declines. For the full year, petroleum import prices were up 6.2 percent, compared with a 42.4 percent surge in 2005. Excluding petroleum, import prices were 0.4 percent higher in December and up 1.7 percent on the year. Prices for imported capital goods edged up 0.1 percent last month, while import prices for consumer goods rose 0.2 percent.

    Overall U.S. export prices rose 0.1 percent last month. Export prices grew 4.6 percent for the year 2006.

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