WASHINGTON — Retail sales inched upward a meager 0.1% in April, the government reported today. Some economists said the sluggish growth reflected battered, cautious consumers who may be digging in.
The Commerce Department said seasonally adjusted April retail sales were $125.38 billion, only 0.1% above March's total.
Auto sales were down 0.9% from March levels, while sales of furniture and home furnishings were down 1.4%. Non-auto sales were up only 0.4%.
Some economists said that the report not only showed a tiny gain, it showed it in the wrong places--in food and gasoline sales, where the increases reflect rising prices rather than more spending.
Slow to Take On Debt
In the more important areas of durable goods, consumers walked out. They were buying fewer cars and less furniture, apparently unwilling to shoulder more debt for discretionary purchases.
"It's a pretty weak report. Very weak, as a matter of fact," said Michael K. Evans of Evans Economics, a Washington consulting firm. "I really think that consumers have given up. They don't have the money, and they're not borrowing anymore. Wages and salaries are not keeping up (with prices).
"Discretionary spending is very weak," he said. "The only gains we see are in food and gasoline, which is clearly prices. There's no strength whatsoever in this report."
Recovering From Plunge
The auto sale decline followed a modest 3.6% rise in March and a 13.6% increase in February. But both figures came off a disastrous January, when sales were down 26.7%. Thus, auto sales are still trying to recover from the mid-winter plunge.
While the month-to-month figures showed little movement, the department said longer-term figures showed better results.
The April sales figures were 5.9% above April, 1986, levels. Auto sales were up 5.4% April-to-April, while non-auto sales were up 6%.
For the first four months of 1987, sales were up 4.6% over the January-April period of 1986, the department said.