Economy Watch: Retail Sales Spike Unexpectedly in January

Compared with January 2016, U.S. retail sales were 5.6 percent higher for the month.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

U.S. retail and food services sales enjoyed a 0.4 percent increase in January ($472.1 billion in sales), more than economists expected, the U.S. Census Bureau reported on Wednesday. Compared with January 2016, the increase was 5.6 percent. Not only that, sales in December were revised from up 0.6 percent to up 1 percent.

The bureau adjusts for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes. Inflation was up a bit toward the end of 2016, and the beginning of this year, but not enough to bump sales up that much.

The increase also wasn’t because of automobile sales, which were strong throughout most of last year. In January, car sales were off 1.4 percent, though for the year the sector still turned in a reasonably good 6.8 percent increase. In fact, without car sales, overall retail sales were up 0.8 percent for the month.

January’s increase was fairly broad-based. Electronics stores saw a 1.6 percent increase, compared with a drop of 1.3 percent for the year. Sporting goods, hobby, book and music store sales were up 1.8 percent for the month, and clothing store sales were up 1 percent. Even department stores, the most troubled segment of the retail world, enjoyed increased sales in January: up 1.2 percent (compared with a drop of 3.2 percent for the year.)

Nonstore retailers didn’t see any increase or decrease for the month. But that’s probably only a pause. Internet sales gained 12 percent for the year in January 2017.