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(Janesville, WI) By Jim Leute, Gazette

Rock County's retailers are about to close out a record year, further evidence that the local economy continues to rebound from the dual impacts of a national recession and the loss of thousands of jobs tied to auto manufacturing.

If local retailers post only an average December, annual retail sales will total about $2.1 billion, an increase of 2.3 percent over sales of 2008.

Retail sales have been gradually increasing since bottoming out in 2010, according to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

That gradual improvement is a sign of growing consumer confidence, said John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville.

“Nothing tells more about the actual attitude of real consumers than retail sales,” Beckord said. “It's not speculative, and it's not based on a survey.

“It's based on actual results--people voting with their pocketbook.”

James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager, said it's hard to argue with the numbers compiled by the state.

“It's really the most readily available gauge of the strength of the local economy,” Otterstein said. “It's timely, not from months or years ago like many reports, and it shows a definite pattern on the local level.”

It should not be a great surprise that retail sales are nearing an annual record.

Other economic indicators also have been posting gradual gains.

New vehicle registrations are a reflection of new car sales. Through November of this year, registrations are already 5 percent ahead of those registered in all of 2012.

Local unemployment has dropped to a level not seen since before the Great Recession.

Home sales continue to rebound, and the median sales price for homes sold in Rock County in 2013 is nearly 14 percent higher than it was at this point last year, according to the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

“With home sales and prices up, that results in a variety of other purchases, whether it's appliances, carpeting, art work or whatever,” Beckord said.

Confidence in the housing sector extends to the nation.

The National Association of Home Builders recently reported that builders' view of current sales conditions jumped to the highest level in eight years, while their outlook for sales heading into next year's spring home-selling season also improved.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve reported that consumers' use of revolving credit grew to its highest level since September 2010. That's a reflection that consumers are willing to carry a credit card balance because they're confident they'll have the future income needed to pay down the debt, analysts said.

Beckord said another component in consumer confidence is this year's growth on Wall Street, where the stock market has soared to record highs and most retirement funds have done remarkably well.

“There are lots of retirees around here who are enjoying that,” he said. “Taken together, all of this tells us that people are feeling better about their situation.

“Of course, them feeling better about their situation is good for local businesses and the translation is right in front of us in terms of retail sales.”

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