U.S. Retail Sales Flat in April

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The FINANCIAL — U.S. retail sales barely budged in April, a sign of continued consumer caution heading into the spring, according to Nasdaq.

Sales at retailers and restaurants held steady from the prior month at a seasonally adjusted $436.8 billion, the Commerce Department said on May 13.

Economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal had expected a 0.2% rise in April.

Retail sales climbed a revised 1.1% in March, up from a previously estimated 0.9% gain.

The flat reading from March to April was partly driven by falling car and gasoline purchases. Vehicle and parts sales slid 0.4% and gasoline station sales dropped 0.7%.

Excluding autos, sales rose 0.1%. And excluding gasoline sales rose 0.1% in April. When excluding both gasoline and autos, sales rose 0.2% last month.

Retail sales, which can be choppy from month to month, fell through the winter and there aren’t yet signs of a strong rebound. Overall retail sales are up 0.9% from a year earlier, the lowest level since October 2009. Sales are down or flat in four of the five past months.

Retail sales figures are a key barometer for overall consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of economic output in the U.S. During the first quarter of the year, households remained cautious amid bad weather and a broader economic slowdown.

While a drop in gasoline prices dented overall sales last month, the savings at the pump should help consumers elsewhere. The average price for a gallon of gasoline has been creeping up since January but at the end of April was still more than a dollar less than a year earlier.

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Instead of spending that windfall, though, households have been paying down debt and building up bank accounts. The personal saving rate in the first quarter of the year was the highest since the end of 2012.

Federal Reserve officials last month acknowledged the decline in consumer spending during the early months of the year but held out hope it would perk up. “Households” real incomes rose strongly, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices, and consumer sentiment remains high,” central bank officials said following a two-day policy meeting in April.

A pickup in consumer spending would give the Fed confidence that a weak first-quarter economic performance was temporary, rather than a sign of some underlying problems. Other recent economic data suggests the economy is returning to healthier growth rates. Employers added 223,000 jobs in April, the Labor Department said last week, a welcome rebound after March’s gain of only 85,000–the worst monthly performance in almost three years.

Last month, Americans spent more at nonstore retailers, a category that includes online purchases, at sporting goods stores, on health and personal care, and at restaurants and bars. But purchases from furniture, electronics, grocery and department stores all fell, according to report published on May 13.

The retail-sales data are adjusted for seasonal variations but not for price changes. The report doesn’t include estimates for most services, which make up the bulk of consumer spending.

 

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