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Economy in Brief

U.S. Retail Sales Exhibit Extensive Weakness
by Tom Moeller  February 14, 2019

Consumers cut back on spending late in 2018, to the greatest degree since 2009. Total retail sales declined 1.2% (+2.3% y/y) during December following a 0.1% November uptick, revised from 0.2%. A 0.2% rise had been expected in the Action Economics Forecast Survey. A pocket of strength was in the motor vehicle sector where sales rose 1.0% (3.4% y/y) following two months of strong increase. Excluding motor vehicles and parts, retail sales fell 1.8% following a little change in November, revised from 0.2%. A 0.1% uptick had been expected.

A measure of the underlying pace of retail spending is nonauto sales growth excluding gasoline and building materials. These sales fell 1.7% (+1.9% y/y) after a 1.0% rise.

The retrenchment in retail spending was evident throughout the report. Sales of sporting goods, hobby shop, book & music stores plummeted 4.9% (-13.0% y/y) and have fallen sharply in each of the last nine months. Nonstore retail sales dropped 3.9% (+3.7% y/y) and reversed the prior month's increase. Purchases at furniture & home furnishings stores fell 1.3% (-0.2% y/y) after a 0.5% rise. Sales at electronics and appliance stores eased 0.1% (+0.7% y/y) and have been lackluster for six straight months. General merchandise store sales were off 0.9% (+2.2% y/y) after a 0.4% gain. Clothing & accessory store sales dropped 0.7% (+4.7% y/y) following a 0.4% rise.

Reflecting lower prices, gasoline service station sales declined 5.1% (-0.2% y/y), about as they did in November. To the upside, building materials & garden equipment store sales improved 0.3% (1.4% y/y) after a 1.5% decline.

Sales of nondiscretionary items also were weak last month as health & personal care product store sales decreased 2.0% (+1.6% y/y) after a 1.3% gain. Food & beverage store sales declined 0.4% (+1.4% y/y) following a 0.1% rise.

Even the inclination to dine out waned. Restaurant & drinking establishment sales declined 0.7% (+4.0% y/y), the same as in November.

The retail sales data can be found in Haver's USECON database. The Action Economics forecast is in the AS1REPNA database.

Retail Spending (% chg) Dec Nov Oct Dec Y/Y 2018 2017 2016
Total Retail Sales & Food Services -1.2 0.1 1.0 2.3 5.0 4.3 3.1
  Excluding Autos -1.8 -0.0 0.8 2.0 5.5 4.3 2.7
Retail Sales -1.3 0.2 1.1 2.1 4.9 4.5 2.8
  Motor Vehicle & Parts 1.0 0.7 1.6 3.4 3.0 4.3 4.6
 Retail Less Autos -2.0 0.1 0.9 1.6 5.4 4.5 2.2
  Gasoline Stations -5.1 -4.4 4.2 -0.2 13.1 8.8 -5.7
Food Service & Drinking Places Sales -0.7 -0.7 0.2 4.0 5.9 2.7 5.6
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