Modest retail spending pace is better than year ago

Outside of ecommerce sales, furniture and furnishings is a lone bright spot among retail spending that is settling back into a modest pace of year-to-year growth in the wake of a strong holiday.

Ecommerce sales are sustaining strong growth of 15% or more, according to a combination of the latest quarterly ecommerce sales and monthly retail sales by channel reported by the government on a seasonally adjusted and unadjusted basis.

Notable among the emerging weak spots are home improvement stores, where the unadjusted data—more so than the seasonally adjusted data—show a slower pace in April that is below the year-to-date average growth and much weaker than a year ago.

Below are highlights from the latest retail and ecommerce view of the consumer economy.

  • Ecommerce vs in store. The growth letup from the strong holiday appears to cut across measures. Topline retail sales have continued to grow less than 4% into the second quarter after peaking at 5.5% in the Nov-Dec period. A letup is similarly evident in the ecommerce versus store breakouts—although the ecommerce letup means slightly less robust growth of about 15% into April.
  • April signs. The headlines have focused on the strong month-to-month (seasonally adjusted) gain in April, but that pickup mostly shows the volatility evident month-to-month. The gain elevated year-to-year growth to just 3.8% (for sales excluding auto, fuel, and food service channels), which is close to average for recent years.
  • Easter months. The Easter holiday period appears to have been better this year than a year ago. This was most evident in the combined unadjusted data for March and April, which averages out the timing difference. The improved growth was particularly clear in select channels such as clothing (+3.3%), general merchandise stores (+3.0%), and restaurants (+4.2%).
  • Trends by store type. Ignoring the strong holiday period, the data show that the modest year-to-date pace this year is better than the year-to-date pace a year ago for many channels. Notably, furniture and furnishings stores are growing (+5.3%) more than twice last year’s pace. Meanwhile, home improvement stores (+5.0%) are running slightly behind last year’s robust pace.

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