The Census Bureau said that retail sales increased 0.3 percent in February. This was a partial rebound from the weather-induced declines of 0.3 percent and 0.6 percent in December and January, respectively. Retail sales peaked at an all-time high of $430.1 billion in November, but have fallen 0.7 percent since then. As a result, the year-over-year pace of retail spending has also decelerated in that time period, down from 4.0 percent in November to 1.5 percent in February.
The largest monthly gains in retail sales occurred in sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores (up 2.5 percent); nonstore retailers (up 1.2 percent); and health and personal care stores (up 1.2 percent) businesses. In the first two, these were bounce-backs from declines the month before.
The bigger story was the beginning of possible “green shoots” on the sales front in February for some retailers. For instance, motor vehicle sales were hard hit by poor weather conditions in both December and January (down 2.1 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively). In February, auto sales rose a very modest 0.3 percent, ending the downward streak. Similar shifts were seen for department stores (up 0.7 percent), clothing and accessories (up 0.4 percent), furniture and home furnishings (up 0.4 percent), and food service and drinking places (up 0.3 percent). This indicates that people have started to come back into these establishments – a positive development even if the increases have not fully offset the prior decreases.
Areas with continued weaknesses included miscellaneous store retailers (down 0.9 percent), general merchandise stores (down 0.3 percent), electronics and appliances (down 0.2 percent), and food and beverage stores (down 0.2 percent).
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.