WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Donald Evans touted the President’s economic strategy Thursday on news that overall retail sales rose 0.4 percent in November to $302.5 billion, despite a sharp drop in department store sales.

Evans, who typically does not publicly comment on Commerce’s monthly retail sales report, credited Bush’s tax-cut plan for boosting overall retail sales and turning the economy around.

"Thanks to the tax cut and presidential leadership, the recession was one of the shortest and shallowest since World War II," Evans said at a news conference. "Tax cuts have put money back into the hands of the consumer."

However, Evans acknowledged that the economy is "not out of the woods yet." He said, "This recovery is somewhat uneven. Far too many people are out of a job during the holiday season and President Bush knows this economy is not growing at its full potential."

But Evans stressed the economy has grown for the past four quarters and pointed to "positive signs," such as strong home sales, low inflation and "robust" productivity. Weak consumer confidence, rising unemployment and a declining business investment, on the other hand, have dampened economic growth, he said.

Department store sales, which fell 1.4 percent in November against October and plunged 3.5 percent against November 2001, was one of the weakest spots. Sales at department stores, excluding leased departments, fell to $18.66 billion for the month. By comparison, department store sales in November 2001 stood at $19.34 billion.

Sales at clothing and accessories stores also fell by 1.3 percent to $14.58 billion, in November against October, but rose a healthy 4.9 percent against November 2001. Sales at general merchandise stores, which include department stores, rose slightly in November by 0.3 percent to $38.86 billion and jumped 4.9 percent against the year-ago period.

Overall retail sales in the month were up 2.1 percent compared to November 2001.

Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, who spoke at the news conference with Evans, said she was "encouraged by the numbers," but claimed they don’t tell the true picture of the holiday shopping season since there were six fewer shopping days due to Thanksgiving falling so late in November. She stood by her association’s forecast of a 4 percent increase in holiday sales, which could result in $209 billion in sales from Thanksgiving through the holidays."We would obviously like to see stronger sales and the economy has been improving, but not as quickly as we would like to see," Mullin said.

Michael J. Donnelly, senior economist at Global Insight, wasn’t quite as bullish about holiday retail sales, claiming the effect of the tax cut is "petering out."

"In December, the tax cut will not help at all and we don’t expect a strong selling season," said Donnelly, adding that earnings gains have been eroded by inflation and wage gains have been declining all year. "Consumer confidence is not as high because of the possibility of a war with Iraq and consumers are not as willing to spend so the forecast for the fourth quarter is a negative consumption number.

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