20101115 holiday shopping season just around the corner 35
A shopper at a Lowe's home improvement store walks by a display of artificial Christmas trees San Francisco. - 

Good tidings have come early for retailers preparing for the holiday shopping frenzy.

Retail sales figures, released Monday by the Commerce Department, show October sales ticked up 1.2 percent from the previous month, beating expectations in the biggest jump since March. They're up 7.3 percent from the year-ago period.

That's good news, especially for auto dealers who contributed the most to the rise. Their sales revved up by 5 percent -- not much of a surprise since auto manufacturers reported total October sales were up to 12.3 million units.

Excluding autos, retail sales rose a mere 0.4 percent.

Consumers still are keeping a tight grip on their spending. The high unemployment rate, stuck at 9.6 percent, hasn't helped matters, experts say.

Economist Julia Coronado, chief economist at BNP Paribas, says there needs to be some context to the optimism.

"Part of it is inflation, so gas prices rose quite a bit pushing up the numbers," Coronado said.

Sales at gasoline stations rose 0.8 percent, partly reflecting higher prices at the pump, the Commerce department reported.

And while consumers spent more on cars, they pulled back spending on spending in other areas such as electronics, she said.

Sales at electronics stores dropped 0.7 percent. Meanwhile, hardware stores were up 1.9 percent.

"Overall, it's still a mixed picture," Coronado said.

Marketplace Host Steve Chiotakis contributed to this report.