Nov. 14, 2004--Retail sales appear to be picking up heading into the busiest shopping season of the year, according to a pair of reports released Friday.

The Commerce Department announced last week that seasonally adjusted advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales reached $342.1 billion in October, up 0.2% from September and up 7.6% from 2003. Retail trade sales rose a similar 0.1% from last month and an identical 7.6% compared to last year. Total sales for the August through October period were up 6.7% from the same period a year ago.

Also on Friday, the National Retail Federation said that October retail sales in the GAFS category -- defined as general merchandise stores, clothing and clothing accessories stores, furniture and home furnishings stores, electronics and appliances stores, and sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores -- increased 1.1% since September and 6.2% from a year earlier.

The NRF cited strong apparel sales in October, with sales at clothing and clothing accessories stores rising by a seasonally adjusted 3.0% month-to-month and by 7.4% unadjusted for the year.

"The fact that apparel was as strong as it was is a good sign for retail sales in general," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the NRF.

Sales at general merchandise stores also rose by 0.9% month-to-month and 7.7% unadjusted year-over-year, according to the NRF. Furniture and home furnishings stores posted more modest gains of 0.3% from the prior month and 1.7% from the previous year.

The NRF is forecasting a 4.5% increase in GAFS sales during the holiday season and expects consumers to spend $220 billion during November and December.

"We think it should be a good strong increase." Krugman said. "We're seeing a ton of key economic indicators turn around lately -- gas prices are falling, which is going to give consumers more disposable income, job numbers are going back up and consumer confidence is rising again. All these things bode well going into the holiday season."