Retail Sales Up Slightly in February but Still Weak

It’s still too early to celebrate an upward trend, say economists.

Modest but positive growth in February retail sales after back-to-back monthly declines in December and January signaled a reprieve from the weakness that was at least partly due to punishing winter weather, according to a report from Lindsey M. Piegza, chief economist at Sterne, Agee & Leach Inc. Retail sales rose 0.3% in February, the first monthly increase in three months, and 1.5% year-over-year, she states. January sales were revised down from -0.4% to -0.6%, suggesting an even weaker start to the year than previously reported.

Year-over-year auto sales rose 0.3% in February after more than a 2% decline in both December and January. On an annual basis, autos sales are up 2.0%.

Excluding autos, retail sales rose 0.3% in February and 1.3% over the past twelve months. Specifically, furniture sales rose 0.4% in February after three consecutive months of decline, building materials sales increased 0.3%, and health and personal care purchases increased 1.2%--a five-month high. Clothing sales rose 0.4% in February after a 1.8% decline in January. Year-over-year, clothing sales are up 2.4%.

Sporting goods sales rose 2.5% in February, the largest monthly increase since January 2013.

Electronic purchases, on the other hand, fell 0.2% in February after a 2.6% rise the month prior, and food and beverage sales declined 0.2% after two consecutive months of decline.

General merchandise sales dropped 0.3% in February despite a 0.7% increase in department store sales.

And, miscellaneous sales fell 0.9%, the third consecutive monthly decline.

“It is too early to conclude a continued, sizable rebound in spending because of pent-up demand during months of winter storms,” Piegza says. “Sure consumers have been somewhat constrained, nobody likes shopping during an ice storm, but consumers were spending elsewhere particularly on a heightened energy bill with both prices and usage on the rise. Also, keep in mind that the consumer has been losing momentum for some time now against the backdrop of weak job creation and minimal income growth. Annual retail sales growth is down from near 5% at the start of 2013 to now just 1.5%.”

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