AUGUSTA — Shoppers spent more on cars in the Augusta area last year, plunking down almost 9 percent more money than the previous year and driving an overall increase in total retail sales.

More people stayed overnight in area motels and hotels, too, according to state retail sales figures for 2011. The data show lodging sales of $13.7 million, a 5.6 percent increase, topping the state’s 3.5 percent gain.

But general merchandise sales of $221.5 million in the area were down for the year, dropping 2.6 percent from 2010.

Overall there was a 2.2 percent rise in retail sales in the 22-municipality Augusta micropolitan area (an area of less than 50,000 defined by the federal government to measure trends). But that small rebound trailed the statewide average increase of 3.6 percent, according to sales numbers for 2011 released by the State Planning Office.

“So, we’re growing, it’s nice to see we’re moving back in the right direction,” said Peter Thompson, executive director of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Total retail sales for 2011 of $928 million are up from $907 million the previous year, and $899 million in 2009. Cash registers rang in $948 million in sales in 2008, and $967 million in 2007.

The big drivers of retail sales in the Augusta area continue to be car dealers, with the $265 million in sales they raked in during 2011, accounting for 28 percent of all retail sales, making it the single largest category.

“It seems like things are starting to turn for the better,” said Steve Shuman, general manager and vice president of Charlie’s Motor Mall, which carries multiple manufacturer lines in Augusta. “It’s good to see people coming back to the dealerships like they were a few years ago. It’s very promising. There is a lot more optimism out there. I hope it continues.”

Augusta’s car sales jumped 8.9 percent, besting the statewide increase of 6.9 percent.

Shuman said sales at Charlie’s were up about 10 percent last year.

He credited, in part, demand pent up as people held onto their old cars longer in recent years during the economic downturn before finally deciding it was time to trade in for a new set of wheels.

Auto sales last year were up despite dealers still coping with the destructive tsunami in Japan, which impacted new car inventory.

Shuman said 2012 is off to a strong start, with Charlie’s selling 200 cars during the week-long Presidents Day sale in February, a 20 percent jump over the same time period last year. He said the company has hired an additional 10 employees over the last two months.

The sales picture wasn’t nearly so rosy in general merchandise, where sales were down 2.6 percent in the area. Statewide, merchandise sales were down 0.6 percent.

Thompson said general merchandise sales typically reflect sales at retailers such as those at The Marketplace at Augusta, Augusta Crossing and the Turnpike Mall. Area sales in the category peaked at $238 million in 2008, dropping to $221.5 million last year. Thompson said he wasn’t sure why that category is down, but speculated gas prices could be a factor.

“When you look at The Marketplace alone, they consider their market to be about 350,000 Maine residents,” Thompson said. “There aren’t 350,000 people in the Augusta area. So that suggests a lot of people travel significant distances to come shop here. Maybe not as many are spending the gas money.”

In other categories in the Augusta area, restaurants did $106.6 million in sales, down 0.4 percent; food stores hit $96.1 million in sales, up 0.4 percent; and building supplies sales of $93.1 million were up 0.03 percent.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

 

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