You wouldn't know it from the cheering and headlines, but it is what it is:
The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for September, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $395.5 billion, an increase of 1.1 percent (±0.5%) from the previous month and 7.9 percent (±0.7%) above September 2010. Total sales for the July through September 2011 period were up 8.0 percent (±0.7%) from the same period a year ago. The July to August 2011 percent change was revised from virtually unchanged (±0.5%)* to +0.3 percent (±0.2%).
Remember that "price changes" (inflation) are not in the numbers - it makes them look better, in fact. But seasonal factors are, and I want you to peruse your way down this table (click it to enlarge):
Let's find our great increases. OK, motor vehicle sales were up, right? Uh, no. Electronics? Nope. Nobody expects building materials to be up (and they weren't) but food and beverages must have been, since we had an actual increase, right? Nope.
Health? Nope. Gasoline! I know, gasoline! Uh, no. Clothing! Certainly kids needed new clothes going back to school. That's where the increase was. Oops.... that was down too. Sporting goods? Collapsed -- down some 18% month-over-month. General merchandise; that's the ticket. Well, no -- it was down about 7%. I know, I know, I got it! The Internet saved us! Actually, the Internet (non-store retailers) was down slightly too.
Oh, so we have one place left that must have been up: bars. After all, with the economy doing this badly, we all went out and got drunk (and put it on our credit cards), right? Actually, we didn't. September saw a ~2.5% decline there too.
The truth? The entire gain was "seasonal adjustment." All of it. In other words, in actual dollars there was not only no increase -- there was a net decrease in sales of approximately 5%. That's not annualized, either, it's month-over-month.
Put that in your economic pipe and smoke it.