Retail sales rebounded sharply last month after a four-month lull, the Commerce Department reported yesterday. But some industry analysts questioned the strength of the rebound.
Early Christmas shopping in November helped push sales to $110.3 billion -- a 1.8 percent increase above October's level and an 8.3 percent jump above last year's sales.
The surprisingly sharp increase in all sales categories -- cars, apparel, building supplies and restaurants -- was hailed as good news by most economists, who said that it meant an end to the recent economic slump and predictions of a recession.
However, some economists and financial analysts keeping close tabs on retails sales questioned the optimism generated by the figures, saying many stores have complained about a slow Christmas season.
According to the Commerce figures, "the conventional recession looks less and less likely every day," said Roger Brinner, chief economist of Data Resources Inc.
"The fact that the retail sales are up more than 1 percent is a surprise to everybody," said Edward Friedman, senior economist at Chase Econometrics.
The Reagan administration, which warned Wednesday against expecting much growth in retail sales, was quick to praise the figures. White House spokesman Larry Speakes hailed them as "a healthy sign for the 1984 economy."
It was the second favorable economic report the government has issued in a week. Friday the Labor Department said the civilian unemployment rate dropped to 7.2 percent in November from 7.4 percent a month earlier -- the sharpest drop since June.
"Following a third-quarter slowdown in growth, we now have the good news of a back-to-back drop in unemployment and a rise in retail sales," Speakes said. "This is a combination that reflects consumer confidence in continued economic vitality."
Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige added: "The Christmas season is off to a cheerful start and that pace should continue. This pickup in consumer spending launches the economy into a third year of expansion."
Financial analysts on Wall Street were skeptical of the Commerce Department's interpretation of the figures, however, noting that the daily reports they are receiving from retailers indicate poorer than anticipated Christmas sales.
"It gives a false sign of strength," said Monroe H. Greenstein of Bear, Stearns & Co. "The reason it went up was that October sales were very weak. Based on this monthly 1.8 percent increase, it means that sales are increasing at a 22 percent annual rate -- an extraordinary boom condition that is just not happening."
"I was surprised to see such strong sales," said Stacy Ruchlamer of Shearson Lehman/American Express Inc. "The figures will probably be revised downward next month," she added.
But economists in and out of government doubted there would be any significant revisions next month in the preliminary sales figures.
"I don't think we should doubt the resumption of growth in retail sales," said the Commerce Department's chief economist Robert Ortner. "The background factors are all favorable -- growing incomes and high levels of consumer confidence."
Chase's Friedman added: "The figures may be revised downward, but not significantly to take away from the strong sales."
The November spurt was the largest monthly increase since April. In July, sales dropped and remained fairly constant until last month, when they reached a record $110.3 billion, up from October's level of $108.4 billion.
The November increase followed a tiny 0.1 percent rise in October -- a revision from the earlier Commerce Department report, which said sales had dropped 0.1 percent in October.
Car sales in November totaled $22.8 billion -- a l.2 percent increase over October but still below the record monthly level of $23 billion set in June.
Excluding cars, retail sales rose 2 percent in November. The biggest gain came in apparel and accessory goods, which rose by 3.9 percent. Sales of building materials, hardware and garden supplies increased by 3.8 percent -- the first increase for building materials in five months.
General merchandise was up 2.6 percent, following a 2.3 percent decline in October. After a 1.4 percent drop in sales in October, food store sales gained 2.4 percent in November while restaurants and bars saw a 2.7 percent surge, following last month's 2.4 percent decline.
Overall, sales of nondurable goods rose 1.8 percent over the October level and 5.9 percent above the previous year.
Durable goods sales increased 1.7 percent over October and 12.9 percent over last year. However, November's increase was less than half of the 3.7 percent increase reported in October -- a sign that consumers may be shying away from buying big-ticket items