Economy Watch: Retail Sales Slightly Down in February

A drop in car sales largely accounted for the monthly decline, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but which categories did well for the month?

Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

U.S. retail and food service sales totaled $492 billion in February, a decrease of 0.1 percent compared with the previous month, but 4 percent above February 2017, the Census Bureau reported on Wednesday. The December 2017 to January 2018 percent change was revised from down 0.3 percent to down 0.1 percent.

A month-over-month drop in car sales, which were down 0.9 percent, accounted for all of the slight monthly decline in total retail sales. Without car sales included in the equation, total retail sales were actually up for the month by 0.2 percent. For the year, retail sales without cars were up 4.4 percent (and car sales were up 2.3 percent).

The bureau calculates sales by adjusting for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, so categories like gasoline tend to fluctuate because of volatile prices. Gas sales were down 1.2 percent for the month, but up 7.9 percent for the year, since gas prices are generally higher now than a year ago.

For the month, some retail categories saw better sales than others. In the gaining column were sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, up 2.2 percent; building material and garden equipment and supplies, up 1.9 percent; and clothing and accessories, up 0.4 percent. Furniture stores suffered a drop in sales for the month of 0.8 percent, and department stores lost 0.9 percent of their sales.

For the year, every category was a gainer, except for sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, down 3.5 percent, and department stores, in which sales were flat, neither gaining nor losing compared with February 2017. As usual, Internet-based sales continued to climb, up 1 percent for the month, and 10.1 percent for the year.