Economy Watch: Retail Sales Down Slightly, But Still Stronger Than Last Year

Retail sales ticked down in February, but they're still higher in most sectors than last year's numbers.

Retail sales edged down by 0.1 percent in February, according to the Census Bureau on Tuesday. U.S. retail and food services sales for February, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, came in at $447.3 billion, down from the previous month, but 3.1 percent above February 2015. Also, the December 2015 to January 2016 change was revised from up 0.2 percent to down 0.4 percent.

A few categories of retail goods and services managed to register gains for the month, including building material and garden supplies stores, up 1.6 percent, perhaps because of the unusually warm weather in some parts of the country. Sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores gained 1.2 percent in sales for the month—again the weather might have been a factor—and clothing store sales were up 0.9 percent. Most other categories were down for the month.

On an annual basis, most retailers are doing better. Building material and garden supplies jumped 12.2 percent year-over-year, while car sales were up 6.8 percent. Sporting goods, etc., gained 6.7 percent compared with last year, and even furniture stores, which took quite a winnowing because of the recession, gained a reasonably good 3.8 percent sales increase for the year.

On the other hand, department stores are still losing ground, with annual sales down 2.2 percent, while general merchandise stores, such as Walmart and its ilk, enjoyed a 2.3 percent increase for the year. Electronics stores likewise are suffering, probably because of competition from the Internet: down 3.2 percent year-over-year. Nonstore sales (that is, the Internet), enjoyed an increase of 6.3 percent for the year, but suffered a 0.2 percent dip for the month.