Economic Update – Retail Sales Dip Unexpected – Except by Consumers

On Tuesday President Obama spoke of “glimmers” of hope for the economy, while Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, speaking separately, also waxed a tad optimistic by noting that there are “tentative signs” that the decline of the U.S. economy is slowing. Bernanke also said that the U.S. is faring better than other train-wreck economies around the world, though he was too diplomatic to put it quite that way, or name any names. The glimmers of hope might not apply to the retail industry just yet. Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that retail sales were down 1.1 percent nationwide in March when compared with February. Supposedly that was a surprise, coming on the heels of gains in February (0.3 percent) and January (1.9 percent), but probably only tenured economists without income or credit worries were actually surprised. Pretty much every retail category was down for the month, according to Commerce: autos, 2.3 percent; electronics, 5.9 percent; clothing, 1.8 percent; and furniture, 1.7 percent. But the report wasn’t all bad news. Retail inventories are down 6.6 percent in February compared with the same month last year, more-or-less in tandem with sales drops over the same period. Getting a grip on inventories and their related costs is an important factor in retailer health. The fallout from the retail slump will affect retail real estate for years to come, though to varying degrees in varying niches. For instance, the rapid expansion of bank branches, so much a part of the retail landscape of the early 2000s, is a thing of the past. “The number of branches will level off,” Bart Narter, senior vice president at the consultancy Celent’s banking group, told CPN. “Downward pressures on branches include mergers where banks have overlapping branches, a tougher economic environment where branches have higher break-evens, fewer branch transactions, and lower economic growth.” Another factor putting downward pressure on bank branches, Narter added, is the fact that “the branch boom at the turn of the century was an in-store branch boom. That boom has abated as the number of supermarkets without in-store branches has diminished.” Not that branch banking will vanish. “Customers value the convenience of a branch near either their work or their home,” said Narter. “As new neighborhoods pop up–a rare event today–banks branches will follow. But these branches will be smaller than their predecessors.” Wall Street wasn’t in a mood to see glimmers on Tuesday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 137.63 points, or 1.71 percent, while the S&P 500 was down 2.01 percent and the Nasdaq lost 1.67 percent.