Jan. 14, 2005 -- Despite early warnings of weak sales from the likes of Wal-Mart and Target following a sluggish back-to-school period, U.S. retailers ended the holiday season on the plus side, according to a Commerce Department report released Thursday.

Retailers pulled in a total $349.4 billion in December, an overall growth of 1.2%. Automotive sales saw the biggest gain, growing by 8.6% over the previous December.

Analysts had expected Christmas sales excluding autos to hit .4%. Factoring out autos, retailers grew less than that, just .3%, although they closed out the year up 8% overall. The increase in consumer spending was the greatest seen since 1999, which saw 8.5% growth in sales for the year.

After autos, consumers opened their wallets for furniture and online shopping, which grew by 25% to hit $23.2 billion, according to a survey by Nielsen/NetRatings, Harris Interactive and Goldman Sachs.

The National Retail Federation offered a competing analysis, reporting a 5.7% gain for the sector in November and December, besting its prediction of 4.5%. The group's report said that December sales rose 6.4% for general merchandise stores, clothing, furniture, electronics and appliances stores, and sporting goods and other retailers.