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Retail sales: February offered modest uptick despite economic caution across U.S.

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  • Staff Report 

A Mixed Bag for Retail

In February, Americans slightly increased their spending, marking a 0.6% rise in retail sales after a notable dip of 1.1% in January, as reported by the Commerce Department. This change hints at a cautious optimism among consumers, despite the fact that the increase fell short of expectations, suggesting a growing wariness about spending.

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The Details Behind the Numbers

The minor boost in sales was influenced by a mix of factors including higher gas prices, which climbed to a national average of $3.41 per gallon, and an uptick in auto sales and building materials. However, when removing gas stations and auto dealers from the equation, retail sales only rose by 0.3%. This nuanced growth reflects the impact of inflation, which edged higher from January to February, challenging retailers to make real gains.

Shifting Consumer Priorities

Analysts are observing a shift in spending from goods to services, with the report showing a modest 0.4% increase in restaurant sales. This shift is part of a broader trend where consumers are prioritizing experiences and services over physical items, influenced by rising interest rates and ongoing price concerns.

Sector-Specific Insights

The retail landscape saw varied performances across different sectors. While electronics and appliance stores enjoyed a 1.5% increase, department stores, clothing and accessory stores, and furniture outlets faced declines. Notably, online sales also experienced a rare drop of 0.1%.

Economic Resilience vs. Consumer Caution

Despite a robust job market and wage growth, consumer spending remains uneven due to higher credit costs and inflation. This situation presents a complex challenge for both the economy and policymakers, with big retailers like Walmart and Target noting a shift towards necessity-based shopping and bargain hunting among consumers.

The latest figures underscore the delicate balance between economic resilience and consumer caution, highlighting the challenges and opportunities for retailers and policymakers alike as they navigate the uncertain terrain of 2024’s economic landscape.

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