The holiday season extended into January for many retailers, as consumers flooded the stores with gift cards in-hand ready to take advantage of clearance sales. According to the NRF, retail industry sales for January excluding automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants increased 7.6% over last year and rose 2.0% seasonally adjusted over December.

“The spectacular growth we saw in January was an unexpected surprise for the industry,” said NRF Chief Economist Rosalind Wells. “While our 2006 outlook for the retail industry remains cautious, consumers responded well to the popularity of gift cards, mild winter weather and aggressive clearance sales. We expect to see a continuation of the heavily promotional environment.”

January retail sales released today by the U.S. Commerce Department show that total retail sales (which include non-general merchandise categories such as autos, gasoline stations and restaurants) rose 2.3% seasonally adjusted from December and increased 8.9% unadjusted year-over-year.

There was strong year-over-year sales growth across most retail categories in January. The impressive showing came from building material and garden equipment and supply dealers. Consumers are not quite finished investing in their homes as sales in this category increased a staggering 17.6% year-over-year. Furniture and home furnishing stores also showed strong gains. Sales were up 9.5% from January 2005.

Additionally, strong year-over-year gains were seen at clothing and clothing accessories stores (9.7%), health and personal care stores (8.1%) and sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores (6.5%).