Retail sales end a robust 2017 with solid December rise

WASHINGTON - U.S. consumers shopped at stores and online outlets at a strong pace in December, closing out a healthy holiday season for retailers.

The Commerce Department said Friday that retail sales rose 0.4 percent last month, after a 0.9 percent surge in November. All told, in 2017 retail sales rose 4.2 percent, the most in three years.

Strong holiday shopping should lift U.S. economic growth in the final three months of last year. Americans have been more confident about the economy and are more willing to spend. The unemployment rate is at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent.

Online retailers reported a strong sales gain of 1.2 percent. Department and general merchandise stores, which include Macy's (M) as well as Target (TGT) and warehouse clubs, saw sales rise by just 0.1 percent.

In a separate report Friday morning, the Labor Department said consumer inflation slowed in December to a tiny 0.1 percent gain as the cost of energy products tumbled following a big jump in November.

That followed a much bigger 0.4 percent jump in November and was the smallest advance since a similar 0.1 percent rise in October.

Over the past 12 months, overall inflation rose 2.1 percent, while core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, rose 1.8 percent. The 2017 pace was identical to 2016's gain, and both years were up from tiny increases of 0.8 percent in 2014 and 0.7 percent in 2015.

Low inflation has made the Federal Reserve cautious about raising interest rates too quickly.