Deceptively positive signs in retail spending

Retail spending—excluding autos and fuel—looked better in March as a whole. Outside of online sales, however, most retail sectors showed weakness in one way or another.

Weather likely contributed to some of the month-to-month weakness at a range of mostly homegoods-related stores. They slowed from relatively strong February sales, which were boosted by a mild winter.

Monthly retail sales trends and insightsWeak year-to-year growth, meanwhile, persists at clothing stores, electronics stores, and mass/discount retailers—even as those stores saw better month-to-month gains in March.

Overall, the year-to-year gains were strongest in terms of seasonally adjusted sales. Those sales excluding autos, fuel, and food service were up 4.3% in March while unadjusted sales were up 3.5% from a year ago.

The government-reported sales continue to provide mixed evidence that a post-election surge in consumer spending confidence is translating into stronger spending. See more on confidence here.

Here is more on what the latest retail numbers say:

  • Food and grocery. Food prices have begun to rebound on a month-to-month basis since January. That may be boding well for grocery stores and mass/discount retailers to a lesser extent. In March, grocery store sales picked up 0.5% month to month and 3.4% year-to-year.
  • Two exceptions. Home improvement stores and drug stores are up about 6% from a year ago despite weak month-to-month gains in March. They are the only sectors showing strength outside of double-digit gains online.
  • Retail Sales Quarterly TrendOn a quarterly trend, there remains a significant gap in the growth trend suggested by adjusted sales (stronger) versus unadjusted sales (weaker). This may cast some question on the accuracy of the seasonal adjustment—perhaps related to weather. If so, then the underlying trend may be weaker than suggested.

For 2017, MacroSavvy™ has forecast a gain of 4.0% in retail sales excluding autos, fuel and restaurants, which would be slightly stronger than 2016.

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