Holiday sales best since Great Recession, as consumers buy the latest gadgets

There were increases across all retail categories except sporting goods, which was down 0.5% year-over year.

United States retail sales grew more strongly than expected last month amid especially strong demand for building materials and for on-line retailers.

Sales gains weren't evenly distributed in December, according to First Data's SpendTrend.

Online retailers reported a strong sales gain of 1.2 percent, a number matched by sales home and garden stores.

December sales gained 0.4% seasonally adjusted from November and advanced 4.6% unadjusted year-over-year, NRF indicated, citing United States Census Bureau data.

For the whole 2017, retail sales jumped 4.2 percent from 2016, the strongest growth since 2014. "Consumers are still buying, but where they are buying and how they are buying is changing and will continue to evolve as price transparency increases and e-commerce and brick-and-mortar operations of retailers continue to converge into one seamless consumer experience".

Consumer spending had been robust past year thanks to the improved consumer confidence and strong labor market performance. Spending was up at furniture sellers, grocery stores and restaurants. Core prices had been expected to rise by 0.2 percent. "General merchandise sales (without food or autos) barely moved up, and most of the increase was in non-store retailing", Erik Gordon, professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, told Retail Dive in an email. Clothing and accessories managed a 2.4% increase.

Friday's results exceeded the holiday forecast by the National Retail Federation of between $678.8 billion and $682 billion, which would have been a rise of 3.6 percent to 4 percent.

Health and personal care stores rose 2.2 percent.

"Results are even better than anything we could have hoped for", federation CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement.

The season got off to a strong start, with roughly 70 percent of Americans reporting that they went shopping - either online or in person - over Thanksgiving weekend. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of USA economic output. Among the top 30 cities, Philadelphia ranked No. 12 in terms of total dollars spent in November and December. Still, tepid results from department stores and apparel retailers show that not every company will benefit from more shopper spending.

For decades, the holiday season has been a critical time for the nation's retailers, and analysts said that was particularly true in 2017. "That just continues to grow, especially among retailers that are embracing the digital transition better than others".

Vanessa Coleman