Economy Watch: Retail Sales Rise in January

The U.S. Census Bureau's latest retail sales report shows the overall industry is still thriving, but some categories are doing better than others.

Retail is still doing reasonably well, despite concerns about the overall U.S. and world economies. The Census Bureau reported on Friday that U.S. retail sales edged upward by 0.2 percent in January compared with December. And compared with a year earlier, sales were up 3.4 percent.

The increase came despite the drop in total sales at gas stations due to the falling price of gasoline (the bureau adjusts for seasonal variations and other factors, but not price). Sales at gas stations were down 3.1 percent for the month and 8.1 percent year-over-year, the report noted.

During January, most other categories of retail recorded sales increases, including autos, electronics, building materials, food and beverage, clothes, general merchandise and non-store (Internet) sales. A few exceptions were sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, down 2.1 percent for the month; furniture stores, down 0.5 percent; and department stores, down 0.8 percent.

Likewise, when compared with January 2015, most retail categories are still coming out ahead, with some exceptions. Car sales were up 6.9 percent year-over-year, while furniture sales gained 4 percent. Grocery store sales were up 2.3 percent for the year, while sport goods, hobby, book and stores gained a healthy 9.1 percent. Internet sales were up 8.7 percent for this year, in line with that retail channel’s consistent growth.

Despite their monthly gain, department stores had a bad year in terms of sales, down 3.8 percent since January 2015, presumably because it’s an increasingly obsolete form of retailing. Electronics stores also lost ground for the year: down 4.2 percent, presumably because much of their merchandise is now easily available online.