Commerce_Department_DCWASHINGTON – The Commerce Department’s advance estimates for retail and food service sales released Tuesday showed better than expected growth and a steadily improving economy, with sales of $415.7 billion, an increase of 0.5 percent from November and up 4.7 percent from a year ago.

Overall sales rose 5.2 percent in 2012.

“It wasn’t a banner year by any stretch, but it wasn’t depressed,” said Tara Sinclair, an economics professor at George Washington University. “I thought the fiscal cliff might dampen retail sales more than it did. All in all though, it was right within forecasters’ expectations.”

But other sales reports indicated the holiday season did not produce its usual spark. Sales of items such as clothing, home goods and electronics rose only 0.7 percent from Oct. 28 to Dec. 24, according to the MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse report. Even Black Friday, the season’s most anticipated day of shopping, saw more foot traffic than sales, according to ShopperTrak’s Black Friday shopping report.

Despite the lackluster level of holiday shopping, December did provide a strong finish for 2012, according to the Commerce Department figures. There were increases in almost every retail category when compared to 2011. Automobile sales grew for a second consecutive month, and overall dealership sales were up 8.6 percent for the year.

Larry Parker, a program development director at the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association, was optimistic about the auto industry’s progress.

“It was a great year,” Parker said. “Consumers are more comfortable with the economy and willing to make a purchase they’ve been delaying for a while. I expect the next couple years to be very good.”

The economy is improving to a level where consumers have the confidence to make purchases they have been putting off, he said.

“At some point they have to buy a car,” Sinclair said. “There were decent deals to be made, especially in December.”

Retail stores and online markets saw strong sales as the year came to an end. Clothing, sporting goods, book, music, and furniture sales all saw notable growth. Online sellers saw an 11.6 percent increase in sales.

Officials representing small businesses, however, are less optimistic about the current economic climate.

“Small business confidence is relatively poor,” said Cynthia Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “Sales continue to be one of the top concerns throughout much of the past year.”

Magnuson said Small Business Saturday, an effort to promote shopping at small businesses rather than large retailers, was successful, but the outlook remains weak because of pending legislation and major battles over spending on Capitol Hill.

Sinclair said the new retail sales numbers reflect solid growth, but may be disappointing because as the recession eases, some have hoped for larger gains.

“The numbers would look good outside of the weak recovery from the bad recession and the unemployment rate,” Sinclair said.