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Economy in Brief

U.S. Retail Sales Hold Steady in April
by Tom Moeller  May 14, 2021

• Stability follows near record March strength.

• Weakness was broad-based.

• March reading was upwardly revised.

The consumer took a breather after store re-openings and government-issued $1,400 checks stimulated spending during March. Total retail sales including food service and drinking establishments held steady (51.2% y/y) during April after strengthening an upwardly revised 10.7% in March, a gain surpassed only by a record 18.1% surge last May following extreme weakness in April. (The retail sales figures date back to February 1967). February's 2.9% decline was changed from -2.7% reported initially. A 1.3% April increase had been expected in the Action Economics Forecast Survey. Sales excluding motor vehicles and parts fell 0.8% last month (+40.6% y/y) after rising 9.0% in March, revised from 8.4%. A 0.9% April rise had been expected.

Sales in the retail control group, which excludes autos, gas stations, building materials and food services, declined 1.5% last month (+29.1% y/y) after rising 7.6% in March.

Motor vehicle purchases increased 2.9% in April (104.5% y/y) following a 17.1% March rise. The gain compares to a 2.5% improvement (112.1% y/y) in unit sales of light vehicles. Spending at clothing & accessory stores declined 5.1% (+726.8% y/y) after rising 22.7% in March. General merchandise store sales were off 4.9% last month (+15.1% y/y) after rising 9.7%. Department store sales fell 1.9% (+72.5% y/y) following strong gains in two of the prior three months. Sporting goods, hobby and book store sales fell 3.6% (+155.0% y/y) after rising by one-quarter in March. Furniture & home furnishings sales eased 0.7% last month (+196.4% y/y) after improving 8.1% while sales at electronics & appliance stores rose 1.2% (139.0% y/y) after gaining 17.5% in March. Nonstore retail sales edged down 0.6% in April (+14.5% y/y) after gaining 4.7% in March.

Building materials sales fell 0.4% (+33.8% y/y) after rising 13.9% in March. Reflecting lower gasoline prices (seasonally adjusted by Haver), service station sales fell 1.1% (+76.1% y/y) following four straight months of strong increase.

In the nondiscretionary sales categories, grocery & beverage store sales improved 0.4% in April (1.5% y/y) after rising 0.7% in the prior month. Health & personal care store sales increased 1.0% (24.7% y/y) following an 8.0% March rise.

Sales at restaurants and drinking establishments strengthened 3.0% (116.8% y/y) in April after gaining 13.5% during the prior month.

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

Retail Spending (% chg) Apr Mar Feb Apr Y/Y 2020 2019 2018
Total Retail Sales & Food Services 0.0 10.7 -2.9 51.2 0.3 3.3 4.4
  Excluding Autos -0.8 9.0 -2.7 40.6 0.3 3.4 5.1
Retail Sales -0.3 10.4 -3.0 46.1 3.1 3.0 4.2
 Retail Less Autos -1.4 8.4 -2.8 33.3 4.0 3.0 5.0
  Motor Vehicle & Parts 2.9 17.1 -3.6 104.5 0.3 2.9 1.4
  Food & Beverage Stores 0.4 0.7 -0.5 1.5 11.5 3.1 2.9
  Gasoline Service Stations -1.1 10.2 3.2 76.1 -15.8 -1.7 9.2
Food Service & Drinking Places 3.0 13.5 -1.4 116.8 -19.4 5.6 5.7
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