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US retail sales growth slows down December 14, 2011

Most shops reported stronger-than-expected business in the closely watched Black Friday sales

US retail sales crept up another 0.2% in November according to official data.

Compared with a year earlier, they were 6.7% higher, in line with recovery rate seen since early last year, the Commerce Department said.

Markets had expected a 0.5% increase after shops reported strong business during Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving and traditional start of the sales period.

It was the slowest monthly growth rate since July.

However, the October sales figure was revised up to show 0.6% growth for the month.


According to the latest November data, electronics, internet sales and clothing all did well, symptomatic of the strong sales seen on Black Friday.

But sales fell at building materials and grocery stores, as well as at petrol stations, although the latter may reflect falling petrol prices.

“[The data] suggests that optimism over firm Black Friday sales following Thanksgiving may have been overdone,” said economist David Sloan of IFR Economics.

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[This] could be the start of a period in which households start to spend more within their means”

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Paul Dales
Economist, Capital Economics

“The consumer still faces severe headwinds, most notably recent weakness in personal income growth restraining spending power, and uncertainty over whether the 2011 payroll tax cut will be sustained in 2012.”

Separate household consumption and income data has indicated that the rise in spending in recent months has been driven by consumers spending a bigger share of their income, rather than by them having much more income to spend.

As such, most economists expect the growth rate of spending to taper off somewhat in coming months.

“November’s modest rise could be the start of a period in which households start to spend more within their means,” said Paul Dales, economist at Capital Economics, who points to the unsustainable trend of falling savings.

“If households had brought some of their holiday spending forward to take advantage of Black Friday deals, then sales in both December and January may be just as weak,” he also cautions.

Business confidence

Meanwhile, in more positive news for the US economy, business confidence among small businesses has risen, according to a latest monthly poll.

The National Federation of Independent Business said its regular confidence index rose to 92 in November from 90.2 the month before.

It still remains well below its historic mid-point of 100, but is well up from its recession low of 81.

Most encouragingly, hiring plans by the businesses surveyed continued their steady rise. Small businesses account for a disproportionate share of job creation in the US relative to their turnover.

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Former Black Panther spared death chamber as prosecutors admit defeat December 8, 2011

One of the most bitter battles over capital punishment in a generation has ended with victory for reformers after prosecutors in Pennsylvania abandoned their pursuit of the death penalty for the black radical Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Dubbed the “world’s best known death row inmate”, Abu-Jamal has had his death sentence commuted to life in prison with no chance of parole. The decision was announced on Wednesday just two days before the 30th anniversary of the murder of a white policeman for which he was convicted.

Lawyers representing Abu-Jamal said that the final admittance of defeat by the pro-death lobby after three decades of consistent effort to have him executed would send a message of hope to hundreds of other death row inmates across America. Abu-Jamal, who professes his innocence, has become one of the most vocal critics of the US practice of capital punishment through a series of books, including his 1995 work Live from Death Row.

Christina Swarns of the NAACP’s legal defence fund, who has represented Abu-Jamal in recent appeals, said she hoped the outcome would be a harbinger for the decline of capital punishment throughout the country. “Here was a case where the prosecutors have fought so hard for so long to have Abu-Jamal executed, and the fact that they have failed will give hope to many others who do not have the benefit of his notoriety,” she said.

Mumia Abu-Jamal (born Wesley Cook), aged 58, was sentenced to death for the 9 December 1981 murder of Daniel Faulkner. The police officer was shot several times at 4am in Philadelphia as he stopped a car belonging to Abu-Jamal’s younger brother William Cook.

Abu-Jamal was working as a taxi driver at the time, and was parked across the street. He ran to his brother’s assistance and was accused of shooting Faulkner in a blaze of gunfire in which Abu-Jamal was also wounded. A discharged hand pistol belonging to Abu-Jamal was found at the scene.

Over the past 30 years the condemned man and his supporters have questioned the conviction, claiming variously that the prisoner was framed by police, that another passenger in his brother’s car was the shooter or that another unidentified man was responsible. The case had strong racial undertones, partly because the defendant was a former member of the Black Panthers and partly because of irregularities in the conduct of the trial.

Pennsylvania has executed three prisoners since the death penalty was re-introduced in 1976. The state senate is expected to debate a proposal to carry out a comprehensive study into the use of capital punishment locally, as a first step towards reviewing it.

There were accusations that the trial judge made a racist statement in court, and protests that the defendant was not allowed to represent himself.

In the ensuing years, human rights and other groups lined up to support Abu-Jamal in his battle to avoid execution, while police affiliations and the victim’s family took the opposing position.

In the end, it was not a question of innocence or death that spared him. In 2001 a Pennsyulvania court vacated the death sentence on the grounds that the jury had been improperly briefed by the trial judge. Ten years of appeals followed, with the case bouncing around federal courts and ending up with the US supreme court, which in October refused to consider it further.

After so much legal wrangling, district attorney Seth Williams said he could no longer seek the death penalty, but remained unrepentant about his desire to do so. “There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed officer Faulkner. I believe that the appropriate sentence was handed down by a jury of his peers… He will remain behind bars for the rest of his life, and that is where he belongs.”

Maureen Faulkner, the police officer’s widow, said the result merely underlined the justice system’s “dirty little secret” – an inability to carry out executions. She accused the prisoner’s supporters of being “dishonest cowards” and told the Associated Press that she was glad he would now be put in a general prison wing without protection.

“I am heartened that he will be taken from the protective cloister he has been living in all these years and begin living among his own kind – the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons.”

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Ex-Black Panther avoids death row

Abu-Jamal’s backers say he was framed by police

Former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal is facing the prospect of life in prison after prosecutors said they would not press for the death sentence.

Abu-Jamal was found guilty of shooting dead a white policeman in 1981.

Now 58, he was sentenced to death in 1982, a year after he was convicted for the killing of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner.

The decision not to seek execution was made by prosecutor Seth Williams with the consent of the victim’s widow.

While Abu-Jamal’s conviction has been upheld through a series of appeal cases, a new sentencing hearing was ordered by a federal appeals court after it was ruled that instructions given to the jury could potentially have been misinterpreted.

In October, the US Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case, forcing prosecutors to decide whether to submit a renewed request for the death penalty, or accept a life sentence.

Abu-Jamal’s case has attracted support around the world from people who believe he was the victim of racial prejudice in the US justice system.

Actors such as Mike Farrell and Tim Robbins once joined with other well-known faces to call for a new trial through an advertisement in the New York Times, while rappers the Beastie Boys held a concert that collected funds for Abu-Jamal’s defence fund.

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US Thanksgiving retail sales up November 28, 2011

US retailers have reported a bumper start to the Christmas season

US retail sales figures in the critical Thanksgiving weekend rose 16% versus a year ago to $52.4bn, the National Retail Federation (NRF) has said.

The figures include Black Friday, the first day after the Thanksgiving holiday, when stores reopen.

NRF estimated that 86 million customers shopped online and in-store on Black Friday – the day traders traditionally leave the red and make a profit.

Thanksgiving Day itself saw 29 million shoppers.

According to research by ShopperTrak, provider of retail and mall foot-traffic counting services, Black Friday sales increased 6.6% over the same day last year.

This is equal to $11.4bn in retail purchases, and the biggest dollar amount ever spent during the day.

Retail foot-traffic rose accordingly, by 5.1% over Black Friday 2010.

Analysts are awaiting the results of Monday’s trading, known as Cyber Monday, which online retailers including Amazon cite as their biggest business day of the year.

‘Largest increase since 2007′

US electrical retailer Best Buy was cited as a strong performer over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Its strategy of opening stores at midnight on Thursday, and offering deals that could only be found in-store, forcing shoppers to step inside, was seen as a smart business move by analysts.

Shoppertrak founder Bill Martin said: “This is the largest year-over-year gain in ShopperTrak’s national retail sales estimate for Black Friday since the 8.3% increase we saw between 2007 and 2006.

“Still, it’s just one day. It remains to be seen whether consumers will sustain this behaviour through the holiday shopping season.”

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Discounts aid online sales surge

Amazon warehouses expect this to be the busiest time of the year for online orders

Online sales rose faster than expected in the US on Black Friday, according to surveys.

Internet sales totalled $816m (£524m), a 26% gain on last year, said Comscore. IBM Coremetrics put the rise at 24%.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is treated by many retailers as the start of the Christmas shopping season. They offer one-off discounts to mark the occasion.

Analysts said heavy promotional activity helped drive demand.

By comparison, a report by Shoppertrak suggested that in-store Black Friday sales were up by 7% on last year, at $11.4bn.

Beating the rush

Around 50 million Americans visited online retail sites on Friday, according to Comscore.

It said Amazon was the most popular destination, with 50% more visitors than any other retailer.

Walmart, Best Buy, Target and Apple were next in line, said the analytics company.

“Despite some analysts’ predictions that the flurry of brick-and-mortar retailers opening their doors early for Black Friday would pull dollars from online retail, we still saw a banner day for e-commerce,” said Comscore’s chairman, Gian Fulgoni.

Mobile shopping

IBM Coremetrics also noted a trend towards shopping on smartphones and tablet computers.

It said Black Friday purchases made on mobile devices had accounted for 9.8% of all online sales, compared with 3.2% last year.

IBM described mobile shoppers as having had a “laser focus” since they had been more likely to view a single page on a retailer’s site rather than browse what else was for sale.

IBM said Apple’s iPhone and iPad had generated the most mobile internet visits to online stores, accounting for more than double the traffic originating from devices running Google’s Android system.

The company also noted a jump in Black Friday related chatter on social networks. It recorded a 110% rise in discussion volumes after consumers had shared tips on how to secure products before they sold out and the best places to park.

Cyber Monday

Friday’s internet sales are expected to be eclipsed today on what is referred to as Cyber Monday – which many experts believe will be the US’s busiest online shopping day of the year.

Close to 123 million Americans plan to make an online purchase according to a survey commissioned by the US National Retail Federation, an industry lobby group. That would be a 15% increase on last year.

NRF said nearly eight in ten online retailers would run special promotions including “flash sales that last an hour” and “free shipping offers”.

The federation also highlighted the shift to mobile devices, saying it expected 17.8 million Americans to use them to shop today, nearly five times the number in 2009.

“Retailers have invested heavily in mobile apps and related content as the appetite for Cyber Monday shopping through smartphones and tablets continues to rise,” said Vicki Cantrell, executive director of the NRF’s website

Cyber confusion

UK internet retailers said it was less clear which day will be the UK’s busiest online shopping day this year.

“Over the last couple of years we have seen a fortnight of peak activity over the period corresponding to both this and next week,” said Andy Mulcahy, a spokesman for the industry body Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG).

“We expect £3.72bn will be spent online over the two week period.”

Mr Mulcahy said that although some retailers are trying to generate interest in the idea of Cyber Monday in the UK, they are split over which day to mark.

He added that since many online retailers had been offering discounts of up to 70% for several months, customers might not have noticed a big difference in the level of promotional activity.

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