The Census Bureau said that retail sales rose a surprisingly strong 1.1 percent in February. This was the fourth consecutive monthly increase and builds on a much smaller 0.2 percent gain in January. That month’s weaker increase was largely attributed to higher taxes. Still, retail sales have risen a decent 7.8 percent between February 2012 and February 2013.
One of the larger increases in the past two months has been sales from gasoline stations. These have risen 3.6 percent and 5.0 percent, respectively, in January and February. This was due to higher petroleum prices, with the price per barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil rising from $88.25 on average in December to $94.69 in January to $95.32 in February. Excluding gasoline stations, retail sales would have risen by 0.6 percent.
February’s number was also boosted by strong auto sales, which rose 1.1 percent for the month. Motor vehicle and parts sales have improved over the past few months, especially since October. Year-over-year gains have been up 7.8 percent. If you exclude gasoline and autos from the analysis, retail sales increased 0.4 percent. This indicates a more modest gain than the headline figure.
Other retailers with higher monthly sales included miscellaneous store retailers (up 1.8 percent), nonstore retailers (up 1.6 percent), building materials and garden supply stores (up 1.1 percent), and food and beverage stores (up 0.8 percent). Weaknesses were seen among furniture and home furnishings stores (down 1.6 percent), department stores (down 1.0 percent), sporting goods and hobby stores (down 0.9 percent), and restaurants and bars (down 0.7 percent).
Chad Moutray is chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.