WASHINGTON — Sales at department stores and discounters rose in January while declining at apparel and accessories stores, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s monthly retail sales report, released Wednesday.
Department stores posted a 1 percent seasonally adjusted sales increase to $15.1 billion compared with December, while sales at general merchandise stores, a category that includes department stores and discounters, rose 1.1 percent to $52.6 billion. Specialty stores, which had been posting solid sales gains, fell slightly in January by 0.3 percent to $20.2 billion.
On a year-over-year basis, specialty store sales were up 4.4 percent, while department store sales were down 0.6 percent and general merchandise store sales declined 1 percent.
In the overall economy, retail sales edged up 0.1 percent to $416.6 billion.
“Today’s retail sales figures continue to indicate a stable yet fragile economy,” said Matthew Shay, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation.
Shay noted that a lack of a coherent federal economic policy hurts consumer confidence, which in turn dampens spending. The NRF noted that consumers adjusted their spending in response to the increase in payroll taxes and the rise in gasoline and energy prices.
But NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said, “With the return of healthy housing prices, stronger employment statistics combined with historic highs on Wall Street at the end of 2012 and 2013, consumers seem a bit more confident these days. Even though retail sales were relatively modest in January, consumers seem to have adjusted accordingly to rising taxes and energy prices. Far from secure, consumer confidence continues to be shaky.”
IHS Global Insight is forecasting consumer spending adjusted for inflation growth to be up around 2 percent in the first quarter.
Chris G. Christopher Jr., director of consumer economics at IHS, said, “Retail sales stayed in positive territory in January despite the expiry of the payroll tax cut, depressed consumer mood and political bickering over the debt ceiling. The weak-but-above-water results were expected, however department stores surged in January after a dismal showing during the holiday season.”
Christopher noted that there were positive factors that helped higher-end shopping in January, such as a relatively strong stock market and home values that are gaining some traction. He said consumer confidence and spending are slightly out of sync — confidence has taken a few hits due to political bickering over the fiscal cliff and then again in January over the debt ceiling, and retail sales and consumer confidence were also both affected in a negative way by the expiry of the payroll tax cut.
“When the average American household notices that their paychecks are lower, rushing out to the mall is not the first impulse,” Christopher added.