WASHINGTON D.C., Oct 15, 2010 / — As retailers closed the books on the summer selling season and looked ahead to the all-important holidays, September sales gains were better than expected.

According to the National Retail Federation, September retail industry sales (which exclude automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants) increased 0.4 percent seasonally adjusted over August and 4.3 percent unadjusted over last year.

“There’s no question that the industry is in a much better state than this time last year, however consumers are still very reliant on sales and promotions,,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “It is encouraging to see increases in key discretionary spending categories, marking a significant change in what retailers experienced throughout the economic downturn.”

September retail sales released today by the U.S. Commerce Department show total retail sales (which include non-general merchandise categories such as autos, gasoline stations and restaurants) increased 0.6 percent seasonally adjusted over August and 7.7 percent unadjusted year-over-year.

“September retail sales show that the economy is continuing to grow, even though it remains at a subpar pace,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. “Given the stubbornly high unemployment and other challenges that families are facing today, these increases are still quite impressive.”

With the onset of fall, building material and garden equipment stores definitely got their share of traffic. Sales at these stores increased 0.6 percent seasonally adjusted month-to-month and a solid 6.0 percent unadjusted over last year.

Electronics and appliance stores also saw strong gains, with sales increasing 1.5 percent seasonally adjusted from the previous month and 5.7 percent unadjusted year-over-year.

Sales at furniture and home furnishing stores increased 0.5 percent seasonally adjusted and 2.9 percent unadjusted year-over-year. Health and personal care stores sales showed strength as well, with an increase of 0.5 percent seasonally adjusted over August and 3.9 percent unadjusted year-over-year.