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Economy in Brief

U.S. Retail Sales Soar in March
by Tom Moeller  April 15, 2021

• Strength is broad-based as consumers venture into stores.

• Durable goods are notably firm.

• Earlier months' data were little-revised.

Improved weather, a strong employment gain, $1,400 stimulus checks and store re-openings combined to bolster consumer spending last month. Total retail sales including food service and drinking establishments increased 9.8% (27.7% y/y) during March after declining 2.7% in February, revised from -3.0%. The Action Economics Forecast Survey expected a 5.4% rise. Retail sales excluding motor vehicles and parts surged 8.4% last month (19.4% y/y) after falling 2.5% in February, revised from -2.7%. A 4.6% March rise had been expected.

Sales in the retail control group, which excludes autos, gas stations, building materials and food services, rose 6.9% last month (14.2% y/y) after falling 3.4% in February.

Motor vehicle purchases surged 15.1% in March (71.1% y/y) following a 3.5% February decline. The rise compares to a 12.6% strengthening (58.7% y/y) in unit sales of light vehicles. General merchandise store sales jumped 9.0% last month (4.6% y/y) after falling in four of the previous five months. Department store sales recovered 13.0% (25.6% y/y) after falling 7.6% in February. Clothing & accessory store sales jumped 18.3% (101.1% y/y) after falling 5.5%. Furniture & home furnishings sales improved 5.9% (46.8% y/y) following a 4.7% decline while sales of electronics & appliances rose 10.5% (28.5% y/y) after falling 1.9% in February. Nonstore retail sales improved 6.0% (28.7% y/y) after declining 4.4% in February. Sporting goods, hobby and book store sales recovered 23.5% (73.5% y/y) after a 6.9% decline.

Building materials sales rose 12.1% (29.4% y/y) after falling 2.8% in February. Reflecting higher prices, gasoline service station sales rose 10.9% (34.8% y/y), the fourth straight month of strong increase.

In the nondiscretionary sales categories, grocery & beverage store sales improved 0.7% last month (-11.8% y/y) after easing 0.3% in the prior month. Health & personal care store sales increased 5.7% (5.5% y/y) following a 1.1% decline.

Sales at restaurants and drinking establishments posted a 13.4% rise (36.0% y/y) in March  after falling 1.8% in February.

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

Retail Spending (% chg) Mar Feb Jan Mar Y/Y 2020 2019 2018
Total Retail Sales & Food Services 9.8 -2.7 7.7 27.7 0.4 3.5 4.4
  Excluding Autos 8.4 -2.5 8.4 19.4 0.2 3.5 5.2
Retail Sales 9.4 -2.8 7.4 26.9 3.2 3.4 4.2
 Retail Less Autos 7.8 -2.6 8.2 17.2 3.8 3.3 5.1
  Motor Vehicle & Parts 15.1 -3.5 5.0 71.1 1.1 3.7 1.4
  Food & Beverage Stores 0.7 -0.3 2.1 -11.8 11.1 2.5 2.9
  Gasoline Service Stations 10.9 3.8 5.9 34.8 -15.6 -0.5 9.3
Food Service & Drinking Places 13.4 -1.8 9.6 36.0 -19.3 4.6 5.8
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