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Economy in Brief

U.S. Retail Sales Weaken Broadly Ahead of Major Coronavirus Impacts
by Tom Moeller  March 17, 2020

Total retail sales including food service establishments declined 0.5% (+4.3% y/y) during February after rising 0.6% in January, revised from 0.3%. A 0.2% gain had been expected in the Action Economics Forecast Survey. Retail sales excluding motor vehicles & parts fell 0.4% (+4.2% y/y) following a 0.6% increase, revised from 0.3%. A 0.1% uptick had been anticipated.

Retail sales alone fell 0.5% (+4.2% y/y) during February following a 0.6% January rise, revised from 0.1%. A 1.4% decline (-1.0% y/y) in electronics & appliance store sales held back overall purchases. They had risen 0.6% in each of the prior two months. Sales of building materials also weakened 1.3% (+5.1% y/y) last month. Apparel store sales fell 1.2% (+1.4% y/y), down hard for the second straight month. Motor vehicle purchases weakened 0.9% (+4.9% y/y) as unit sales of light vehicles (reported earlier this month) eased 0.2%. Rounding out last month's sales weakness was a 0.4% easing (+3.8% y/y) in furniture & home furnishings store sales and a 0.1% slip (+2.5% y/y) in general merchandise store sales. Sales at department stores alone weakened 0.2% (-5.8% y/y) and have been falling steadily during all of the economic expansion. Offsetting some of these declines was a 0.7% increase (7.5% y/y) in nonstore retail sales after a 0.2% rise. These gains followed four consecutive months of decline. Also improving were sporting goods, hobby, book & music store sales by 0.1% (1.9% y/y) which came after two months of strong increase.

Gasoline & service station sales weakened 2.8% (+2.7% y/y) as gasoline prices slumped.

In the nondiscretionary sales categories, food & grocery store sales held steady (4.0% y/y) after easing 0.2% in January. Sales of health & personal care product stores slipped 0.1% (0.6% y/y) following two months of 0.8% increase.

Restaurant purchases fell 0.5% (5.2% y/y) following two months of modest increase.

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

Retail Spending (% chg) Feb Jan Dec Feb Y/Y 2019 2018 2017
Total Retail Sales & Food Services -0.5 0.6 0.0 4.3 3.5 4.8 4.6
  Excluding Autos -0.4 0.6 0.5 4.2 3.4 5.5 5.0
Retail Sales -0.5 0.6 -0.1 4.2 3.4 4.6 4.5
 Retail Less Autos -0.4 0.5 0.4 4.0 3.2 5.3 4.8
  Motor Vehicle & Parts -0.9 0.8 -1.8 4.9 4.0 2.3 3.4
  Gasoline Service Stations -2.8 -0.4 0.9 2.7 0.3 12.6 8.9
Food Service & Drinking Places Sales -0.5 0.8 0.9 5.2 4.4 6.3 5.9
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