Given that the holidays are around the corner and sales data is flooding the financial news, I'm wondering whether the retail industry's up or down. Let's take a look.

"Stocks Fall on Purchasing, Retail Sales"

That was the headline atop the Yahoo! Finance site around lunchtime today. Right below that, another headline read "Consumer Spending Rises in October." So the data is showing good spending in October. But didn't we read that Black Friday sales were up compared to last year, and that the holiday shopping season was shaping up to be strong this year?

What about November sales results? I've seen people clamoring about how Wal-Mart's 0.1% decline in same-store sales in November could indicate a broader slowdown in consumer spending, rather than missteps at the megaretailer. That seems to be a pretty broad conclusion based on a rather tiny decline. But hey, that's just me.

Can we gain some insight from stock price changes to figure out the health of retail? Let's see -- we have Zumiez (NASDAQ:ZUMZ), DSW (NYSE:DSW), and Retail Ventures (NYSE:RVI), which owns a big chunk of DSW, leading the list of big gainers for the day. But we see Select Comfort (NASDAQ:SCSS), bebe (NASDAQ:BEBE), Christopher & Banks (NYSE:CBK), and Office Depot (NYSE:ODP) near the top of the decliners list.

Here's what I gather from this information: Some stocks are going up, and some stocks are going down. Now that's insight for you.

So is retail up or down? Frankly, I don't care. To me, it doesn't matter whether the industry is up or down. It matters which retailers do the best job and generate the highest returns. It also helps to understand why they're the best, and whether they can continue to stay at the top of the food chain.

That's because our investment dollars don't go into the retail industry. Our dollars get allocated to individual investments. The best strategy is to study which retailers do the best job, then determine whether prices are cheap enough to warrant an investment. That's the way we approach things here at The Motley Fool. And that's why we focus more on specific companies, rather than industry data.

Zumiez and Select Comfort are Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendations. You can check out the ultimate small-cap investing newsletter free for 30 days. Bebe is a Stock Advisor selection. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value pick.

Retail editor and Inside Value team member David Meier does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He is currently ranked 207 out of 14,558 investors in The Motley Fool's CAPS rating service. You can view his TMF profile here. The Fool takes its disclosure policy very seriously.