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Sales fall 2.4% in April as shoppers feel the pinch

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The year-over-year drop at major chains is the worst in decades.

May 11, 2007|Leslie Earnest and Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writers

U.S. consumers fell down on the job last month.

Retail sales slumped 2.4% compared with April 2006, slipping to $52.6 billion in the most wretched year-over-year showing by major retailers since the International Council of Shopping Centers began tracking the data in 1970.

The numbers released Thursday were so dismal they helped trigger the biggest stock market sell-off in nearly two months.

If gasoline prices keep squeezing pocketbooks, the coming months could be bleak too. The national average reached $3.04 a gallon Thursday and the California average hit $3.49.

"It's changed the whole dynamics of my shopping," said Roger Ervast, a chemist who lives in Redlands.

Sales in April at stores open at least a year, a standard measure in retailing, fell 16% at Gap Inc., 6.1% at Target Corp. and 3.5% at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The world's largest retailer said it was the worst performance in at least 28 years.

Luxury chains did well -- especially Saks Inc., up 11.7% -- and wholesale clubs turned in respectable results. Otherwise, the suffering was widespread.

Among the reasons were an early Easter, which helped sales in March at the expense of April, and bad weather that chilled demand. It was the coldest April in 10 years, according to Weather Trend International.

"It was an ugly month," said Michael Niemira, chief economist for the shopping center group, which tallied results from 53 chains.

"It's almost a wake-up call that something is different."

Investors heard it. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 147.74 points, or 1.1%, to 13,215.13, its worst one-day loss since it slipped 2% on March 13.

Some analysts said Americans might finally be losing their ability or willingness to spend.

"I believe we're going to see a definite subsidence of consumer demand over the next few quarters -- and I don't know what takes its place," said Michael Metz, chief investment officer at money manager Oppenheimer Holdings in New York.

Others said it was too early to count the consumer out, and that what happened on Wall Street on Thursday reflected overdue profit-taking after five straight weeks of rising stock prices.

"I think it was more investors looking for an excuse to hit the sell button" after recent heady gains, said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago.

Experts didn't cite gasoline as the main culprit behind the retail sales numbers, but it was what many consumers focused on Thursday.

And Wal-Mart said that its monthly national survey of its shoppers showed that gasoline prices had become a significant issue.

"Concern about the rise in gas prices has increased steadily since January of this year," the company said in a statement.

In Los Angeles, at a Target store on La Cienega Boulevard, Janea Riley, a Detroit resident in town to visit her daughter, said her family had reduced spending of all kinds to be able to fill up the cars.

"I've cut back at Target by about 50%," she said. "We don't go out to dinner anymore."

One energy price tracking firm has calculated that Americans are spending nearly $1.2 billion a day to fuel their vehicles, $400 million a day more than they were just four months ago.

Americans were on more stable ground during other periods of high pump prices, said Scott Hoyt, an economist at Moody's Economy.com who predicted a weak 2% growth in consumer spending for the rest of the fiscal year.

"Certainly we weren't having the carnage in housing and mortgage markets that we are right now," he said. "And labor markets were at least a little bit stronger."

Rising interest rates are hurting some homeowners, particularly those with lower incomes who resorted to sub-prime loans, said economist Sung Won Sohn, chief executive at Hanmi Bank in Los Angeles.

"They are getting double and triple whammies," he said.

Obviously, for Californians, the effect of $3-plus gasoline is especially keen, Sohn said.

"We drive a lot," he said. "When you combine all these things, it has a much bigger effect on the California economy than it would in Des Moines, Iowa."

Candelaro Montanez, a trucker who lives in Orange, said he was feeling the pain from several sides.

The truck he purchased is too expensive to drive and his other job, in construction, is slow because of a stumbling housing market. And he's paying $700 a month for the truck's insurance.

"It's killing me," Montanez, 52, said as he gassed up his motorcycle at a Mobil station in Santa Ana.

Jessica Shafer, 27, purchased just half a tank for her Toyota Sienna at the same station, paying $36.92. The rest would wait for payday.

"I don't want to fork over another $40 now," she said. "I'll have to top it off next week. I feel like I'm constantly playing money games."

For Ervast, the Redlands chemist, the change has been in how he approaches shopping at Target and Wal-Mart. He used to browse after buying what was on his list, in case something else caught his eye. Now "it comes down to the one thing you need," he said, "and then you leave."

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