WASHINGTON — Sales at apparel specialty stores and discounters rose in February but declined at department stores, the U.S. Commerce Department’s monthly retail sales report revealed Wednesday.
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Apparel and accessories stores posted a 0.2 percent seasonally adjusted gain to $20.5 billion in February compared with January, while sales at general merchandise stores, a category that includes discounters and department stores, increased 0.5 percent to $52.1 billion last month. Sales at department stores fell 1 percent to $14.8 billion in February.
On a year-over-year basis, specialty store sales advanced 3.1 percent, while department store sales declined 3.8 percent and general merchandise store sales were off 1.6 percent.
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Some consumers were able to sustain purchasing power in February, despite higher gas prices, higher taxes and a delay in tax refunds. According to the American Automobile Association, the average price of a gallon of regular gas on Tuesday was $3.71 compared with $3.59 a month ago.
“Keep in mind that February is typically the second lowest month volume-wise on the retail calendar,” said Kevin Regan, senior managing director at FTI Consulting. “It was still positive that consumer sentiment is improving. There are good signs with employment and housing. Even the stock market has probably given some people the ability to sit there and increase discretionary spending.”
The national unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent in February from 7.9 percent a month earlier, as 236,000 jobs were added, the Commerce Department said last week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has gained 10.3 percent this year, closing Tuesday at 14,450.06, reaching another in a series of nominal highs of late. The housing market has begun to rebound after a long-term decline, with new home sales increasing 15.6 percent in January.
Regan said the growth in online sales, which were up 1.6 percent in February over January and 15.7 percent ahead of February 2012, are likely contributing to the downturn in brick-and-mortar sales at department stores in particular.
“Department stores have increased their online business and that probably has some bearing on why these numbers are softer, not to mention the fact that J.C. Penney and Sears [both struggling] are part of that community,” Regan said.
He noted that as retailers continue to stop reporting monthly comp-store sales results, it will be more difficult to measure retail performance, which he said makes the government retail sales report more important because retailers still report to the government on a monthly basis.
“Seeing these retail sales numbers on a broader basis [in the government report] becomes more of an indicator of a trend or how the economy is doing,” Regan said.
Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, said consumers exceeded economists’ expectations last month.
“It may be too early to measure the impact of the payroll tax hike and higher gasoline prices on consumer spending,” he said. “However, this portends a good, but not great, first quarter for retailers as consumers continue to breathe life into the economy.”
In the overall economy, retail sales rose 1.1 percent in February to $421.4 billion, driven primarily by higher gas and auto sales.
“This is a very uneven report. On the surface the numbers seem strong; however, the details reveal a much different story,” said Chris G. Christopher, senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight. “Grocery stores are performing well, while restaurants took a hit. Gasoline stations are up, while department stores suffer. Building material is looking good, while furniture took a dive.
“Interestingly, e-commerce retail sales seems to be oblivious to winter storms and rising pump prices, and are most likely helped by them,” Christopher added.