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Despite Increase in Retail Sales, Shoppers Keep Hands in Pockets

WHILE the Christmas shopping season began with a bang, the word on the streets is that the very conservative, value-conscious shopper hasn't gone away.

Retail sales in November rebounded from two straight declines to post the biggest jump in five months. The Commerce Department reported yesterday that sales rose 0.8 percent in November, after falling 0.4 percent in October and 0.1 percent in September.

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Contrary to today's report, analysts say retailers shouldn't get too excited.

''That figure is a good figure, but remember one thing, it relates to the previous month, October,'' which showed the lowest increase in same-store sales in the last 10 years, says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report, a forecasting service in Scotch Plains, N.J.

Same-store sales this year, compared with last year in November, he says, increased only about 3.5 percent.

''So it's not a very good Christmas so far,'' Mr. Barnard says. ''Consumers have kept their hands in their pockets.''

The figure shows that the strength of demand is in the durable goods category, says Janet Mangano, retail analyst and vice president of Midlantic Bank in Edison, N.J.

Durable goods were up 3.9 percent over a year earlier, the Commerce Department reported, and car sales rose 0.4 percent in November.

Sales at apparel stores rose 2.8 percent after falling 2.3 percent in October. Ms. Mangano attributes this to the cold weather finally kicking in.

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