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Economy in Brief

U.S. Retail Sales Improve in August
by Tom Moeller  September 16, 2021

• Surprising increase led by nonstore retailers.

• General merchandise store sales firm.

• Auto sales decline.

Total retail sales including food service and drinking establishments increased 0.7% (15.1% y/y) during August following a 1.8% July fall, revised from -1.1%. A 0.8% August decline had been expected in the Action Economics Forecast Survey. June's 0.9% increase was revised from 0.7%. Sales excluding motor vehicles and parts rose 1.8% (16.2% y/y) last month after weakening 1.0% in July, revised from -0.4%. A 0.1% dip had been expected.

Sales in the retail control group, which excludes autos, gas stations, building materials and food services, increased 2.5% (12.0% y/y) in August following a 1.9% decline in July, revised from -1.0%.

Shopping via the internet revived with the emergence of the Delta variant. Nonstore retail sales surged 5.3% (+7.5% y/y) after declining 4.6% in July. Furniture sales & home furnishings sales also were strong and rose 3.7% (15.6% y/y) following three consecutive months of decline. General merchandise store sales rose 3.5% last month (15.5% y/y) after falling 1.0% in July. Department store sales improved 2.4% in August (28.6% y/y) after a 0.2% easing. Apparel store spending edged 0.1% higher (38.8% y/y) after falling 2.7% in July. To the downside, motor vehicle purchases declined 3.6% (+10.7% y/y), off for the fourth straight month. The latest weakening compares to an 11.1% drop (-14.8% y/y) in unit sales of light vehicles. Electronic & appliance store sales were off 3.1% in August (+18.1% y/y), down for the third month in the last four. Sporting goods, hobby and book store sales fell 2.7% in August (+19.8% y/y), the fifth straight month of sharp decline.

Building materials & garden equipment sales improved 0.9% last month (6.3% y/y) after four straight months of decline. Gasoline service station sales rose 0.2% (35.7% y/y), the weakest increase in four months. The gain accompanied a 1.6% rise in gasoline prices (seasonally adjusted by Haver).

In the nondiscretionary sales categories, grocery & beverage store sales increased 1.8% last month (5.7% y/y) after falling 0.8% in July. Health & personal care store sales edged 0.2% higher (9.4% y/y) after falling 0.8% in July.

Sales at restaurants & drinking establishments held steady last month (31.9% y/y) following strength in all months this year, except 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) Aug Jul Jun Aug Y/Y 2020 2019 2018
Total Retail Sales & Food Services 0.7 -1.8 0.9 15.1 0.3 3.3 4.4
  Excluding Autos 1.8 -1.0 1.7 16.2 0.3 3.4 5.1
Retail Sales 0.8 -2.2 0.7 13.1 3.1 3.0 4.2
 Retail Less Autos 2.1 -1.4 1.5 13.9 4.0 3.0 5.0
  Motor Vehicle & Parts -3.6 -4.6 -2.1 10.7 0.3 2.9 1.4
  Food & Beverage Stores  1.8 -0.8 1.0 5.7 11.4 3.1 2.9
  Gasoline Service Stations 0.2 2.0 3.6 35.7 -15.8 -1.7 9.2
Food Service & Drinking Places 0.0 1.3 2.4 31.9 -19.5 5.6 5.7
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