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Retail sales soft in April; consumer prices flat

May 15, 2012|By Don Lee
  • Store workers squeeze through the crowd of shoppers at the H&M at the Beverly Center on March 8.
Store workers squeeze through the crowd of shoppers at the H&M at the… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON -- Add slowing retail sales to the story of the payback for the warm winter weather.

The Commerce Department said Tuesday that retail spending in April rose a tiny 0.1% from the prior month, seasonally adjusted. Details of the report made clear that the unusually mild winter had pulled some spending forward -- resulting in a spring correction, as was also seen in job growth last month.

A separate government report Tuesday showed consumer prices, after three straight months of increases, were unchanged in April, thanks to lower fuel costs. The annual inflation rate for all items edged down to 2.3% last month, from 2.6% in March.

Retail sales were fairly strong in the first quarter, but spending at building supply businesses sank 1.8% last month from March. Department stores fell back almost as much. Sales at clothing stores dropped 0.7%. And with fuel prices down from earlier this year, gasoline station sales dipped 0.3% in April after three straight months of sharp gains.

There were offsetting pockets of strength. Non-store retailers rolled along in April, their sales jumping 1.1%. Furniture stores and dealers of sporting goods also had a solid month, both up 0.7%. Spending for cars and auto parts grew by a more modest 0.5% over the month.

Despite April's overall slowdown, analysts said that Tuesday's data didn't suggest a sudden pullback from consumers. While it's unclear whether there's more warm weather payback to come, experts think retail spending will likely expand in line with job and income growth -- that is, at a moderate rate.

Economists at Barclays Bank said Tuesday's report showed "quite a sharp dichotomy" in sales between things such as clothing, food and beverages, and cars -- which are now all well above pre-recession levels -- and more discretionary categories such as electronics and department-store items.

For electronics stores, one contributing factor in the weaker sales is plunging prices.

The Labor Department's report on consumer prices showed prices for cars, hospital services and airline fares all rising notably in April from the prior month. Compared with a year ago, consumers were paying 3.5% more for cars and 5% more for hospital services and for clothes last month.

But electronics products are selling for much less. Average consumer prices for television sets, for example, were down nearly 20% in April compared with a year earlier. And prices for personal computers were off 12% from a year ago.


Consumers spent less freely in April than in the first three months

Gas prices keep inflation tame, push confidence to four-year high

New jobless claims drop for second straight week

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