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Economy in Brief

U.S. Retail Sales Weaken in May
by Tom Moeller  June 15, 2021

• Decline follows an early-spring surge and stimulus checks.

• Sales weakness is broad-based.

• April & March readings were upwardly revised.

Total retail sales including food service and drinking establishments declined 1.3% during May (+28.1% y/y). A 0.6% May decline had been expected in the Action Economics Forecast Survey. May's reading followed a 0.9% April increase, revised from no change. An 11.3% March increase also was revised upward from 10.7%. Sales excluding motor vehicles and parts fell 0.7% last month (+26.4% y/y) after little change during April, revised from -0.8%. The 9.8% March increase ex-auto was revised from 9.0%. A 0.5% rise during last month had been expected.

Sales in the retail control group, which excludes autos, gas stations, building materials and food services, declined 0.7% last month (+18.8% y/y) after easing 0.4% in April.

Motor vehicle purchases weakened 3.7% in May (+34.8% y/y) and reversed a 4.3% April rise. The decline compares to a 7.8% drop (+41.5% y/y) in unit sales of light vehicles. Spending at electronics & appliance stores fell 3.4% (+91.3% y/y) after rising 1.5% during April. Sales at general merchandise stores weakened 3.3% (+10.3% y/y) after falling 2.2% in April. Within that group, department store sales improved 1.6% (28.0% y/y) after a 0.6% decline. Furniture & home furnishing store sales weakened 2.1% (+66.6% y/y) following a 0.7% improvement. Nonstore retail sales edged down 0.8% in May (+7.9% y/y) after April's 0.3% easing. Sporting goods, hobby and book store sales fell 0.8% (+44.1% y/y) after weakening 2.3%. To the upside, spending at clothing & accessory stores rose 3.0% (+200.3% y/y) after falling 2.0% in April.

Building materials sales fell 5.9% (+10.5% y/y), the third sharp decline in the last four months. Gasoline service station sales rose 0.7% (57.0% y/y) after falling 1.1% in April. The gain reflected a 3.8% rise in gasoline prices (seasonally adjusted by Haver).

In the nondiscretionary sales categories, grocery & beverage store sales improved 1.0% in May (0.7% y/y) after rising 0.7% in the prior month. Health & personal care store sales rose 1.8% (25.6% y/y) following two months of strong increase.

Sales at restaurants and drinking establishments strengthened 1.8% (70.6% y/y) in May, the fourth month of strong increase in the last five.

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

Retail Spending (% chg) May Apr Mar May Y/Y 2020 2019 2018
Total Retail Sales & Food Services -1.3 0.9 11.3 28.1 0.3 3.3 4.4
  Excluding Autos -0.7 -0.0 9.8 26.4 0.3 3.4 5.1
Retail Sales -1.7 0.5 11.0 24.4 3.1 3.0 4.2
 Retail Less Autos -1.0 -0.7 9.2 21.3 4.0 3.0 5.0
  Motor Vehicle & Parts -3.7 4.3 17.0 34.8 0.3 2.9 1.4
  Food & Beverage Stores 1.0 0.7 0.8 0.7 11.5 3.1 2.9
  Gasoline Service Stations 0.7 -1.1 10.1 57.0 -15.8 -1.7 9.2
Food Service & Drinking Places 1.8 4.5 13.9 70.6 -19.4 5.6 5.7
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