Despite concerns over a still-fragile economy, consumers pushed retail sales to a new record in 2011.
Despite concerns over a still-fragile economy, consumers pushed retail sales to a new record in 2011. - 

Kai Ryssdal: Courtesy of the Commerce Department this morning came the final tally on retail sales for the year gone by: Almost $5 trillion, up 8 percent from 2010.

And yet, there were a lot of frowny faces on Wall Street today. Because the way they see it there, December -- the month of months for retailers -- was a dud.

Our senior business correspondent Bob Moon has today's economic glass half-empty or glass half-full story.

Bob Moon: If the economic recovery is still so fragile, how in the world did we shatter the record for retail sales last year? Turns out we put a lot of that money not necessarily toward things we wanted to buy, but essentials we had to buy. And, a lot of those things simply cost more.

Joel Naroff: There's a number of things we're paying more for, but we're not getting as much.

Economist Joel Naroff says food and fuel get factored out of the inflation numbers, but anyone who went to a grocery store or gas station last year often had to pay more. So does that really reflect healthy consumption?

Naroff: Some of it was empty calories, in the respect that some of it went to pay for higher gasoline prices, especially in the first half of 2011.

In fact, retail sales of gasoline jumped nearly 18 percent year over year.

Naroff is quick to add that's only part of the picture, though. The government's report is a broad gauge that covers everything from auto dealers and department stores to restaurants and bars. So Naroff says 2011 was an important turning point for the country's economic recovery.

Naroff: The consumer finally decided it was time to spend again. They opened their wallets, blew out the dust, found that they actually had some credit cards, went to the stores and started buying.

Wells Fargo economist Tim Quinlan worries that we started dipping into our savings early in the holiday shopping season  -- and then seemed to get a sudden case of frugality in December. But he still thinks some of his colleagues on Wall Street are too pessimistic on the heels of such a strong year.

Tim Quinlan: Consumers are certainly losing momentum a little bit, but that doesn't mean that they're, you know, going into hiding. Consumers are going to continue to spend. The pace of that spending growth is probably not going to be super-robust, and candidly, I don't know that it should be. Part of what got us into this mess to begin with was consumers taking on far too much debt.

Quinlan says the steady spending growth we're still seeing is nothing to complain about.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

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