RETAIL SALES SEND MIXED SIGNAL

Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Retail sales at apparel and accessories stores in February increased a seasonally adjusted 0.3 percent against January, as sales at all retail outlets posted a 0.2 percent decline.
Although posting a one-month gain, apparel and accessories store sales in February grew at a slower pace compared with January’s 1.2 percent jump. However, compared with February 2000, sales in the category last month posted a robust 5.8 percent gain.
Putting downward pressure on the overall retail sales figure for February were furniture and home furnishings sales, which fell 1.9 percent. Gasoline sales dipped 0.2 percent for the month, which Diane Kutyla, an economist with the Deloitte & Touche Consumer Business Group, said can be pinned to the drop in energy prices.
Sales at apparel and accessories stores in February amounted to $12.32 billion. Department stores, excluding leased departments, posted sales of $26.73 billion, a 0.5 percent seasonally adjusted increase against January and a 3.6 percent rise from February 2000. General merchandise sales increased 0.3 percent for the month to $34.63 billion, which is 4.6 percent more than year-ago sales.
Economists read the retail results with mixed reaction.
“What recession?” asked Kutyla, reacting to the numbers and countering concern among some forecasters that the economic slowdown is being understated.
“The consumer isn’t totally tapped out yet, and they are still buying,” Kutyla said. “There is some slowdown, but it certainly doesn’t show the economy is going into a recession.”
On the other hand, Michael Donnelly, a senior economist with the WEFA Group, said the overall decline in retail spending shows the country is “still on track for a slowing economy, slowing consumer spending.”
Rosalind Wells, chief economist for the National Retail Federation, noting Monday’s stock market selloff, said: “In addition, the stock market is experiencing a weakening, and consumer confidence continues to slip. All of these factors have caused consumers to become more cautious in their spending.”