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NRF: March retail sales gain a good sign

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Results point to strong economic fundamentals

WASHINGTON — Retail sales in March were up 1% seasonally adjusted from February and up 0.8% unadjusted year-over-year, according to the National Retail Federation, which said today that the numbers represent good news about the strength of the economy.

“March’s numbers are very encouraging and set the stage for improved expectations for the economy in the coming months, especially since the first quarter is typically weak,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “These numbers boost first-quarter performance and suggest a strong consumer. It is clear that underlying consumer fundamentals including job and wage growth and healthy household balance sheets continue to support spending. Consumers were busy in March after weaker-than-expected spending earlier.”

Kleinhenz argued that March sales look particularly good given headwinds caused by bad weather early in the month and the fact that the Easter and Passover holidays, and the shopping that comes with them, fell in April this year but in March last year.

“The change of seasons is always a factor because of the weather, ” he said, “and a later Easter and Passover this year mean holiday-related sales that took place in March last year won’t come until April this year and sizably impact year-over-year comparisons.”

As of March, the three-month moving average was up 2.6% over the same period a year ago. March’s results make up for a revised monthly loss of 0.8% seen in February and build on February’s year-over-year gain of 2.5 percent.

NRF’s numbers are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which said Thursday that overall March sales — including auto dealers, gas stations and restaurants — were up 1.6% seasonally adjusted from February and up 3.6% unadjusted year-over-year. (NRF’s numbers exclude auto dealers, gas stations or restaurants.) The release of retail sales data for December through March has been delayed as the Census Bureau works through a backlog caused by the government shutdown earlier this year.

NRF has issued a preliminary forecast projecting that retail sales in 2019 will increase between 3.8% and 4.4% to more than $3.8 trillion. That forecast is subject to revision as more data is released in the coming months, the trade group said.

NRF’s report on March sales indicates that online and other non-store sales were up strongly, and that health and personal care stores also posted gains. Most other retail channels saw year-over-year sales declines. Specifically:

  • Online and other non-store sales were up 9.2% year-over-year and up 1.2% month-over-month seasonally adjusted.
  • Health and personal care stores were up 1.6% year-over-year and up 0.2% month-over-month seasonally adjusted.
  • General merchandise stores were down 0.5% year-over-year but up 0.7% month-over-month seasonally adjusted.
  • Building materials and garden supply stores were down 0.7% year-over-year but up 0.3% month-over-month seasonally adjusted.
  • Furniture and home furnishings stores were down 1% year-over-year but up 1.7 percent month-over-month seasonally adjusted.
  • Grocery and beverage stores were down 1.1% year-over-year but up 1% month-over-month seasonally adjusted.
  • Clothing and clothing accessory stores were down 2.6% year-over-year but up 2% month-over-month seasonally adjusted.
  • Electronics and appliance stores were down 4.1% year-over-year but up 0.5% month-over-month seasonally adjusted.
  • Sporting goods stores were down 10.8% year-over-year and down 0.3% month-over-month seasonally adjusted.

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