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April retail sales numbers from Commerce and NRF show mostly modest growth

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
May 15, 2012

While the economy continues its slow-paced recovery, April retail sales data released by the United States Department of Commerce and the National Retail Federation were somewhat sluggish.

Commerce reported that April retail sales at $408.0 billion were up 0.1 percent over March and 6.4 percent higher than April 2011. This sequential increase was well short of February’s 1.1 percent hike over January, which represents the highest monthly increase in retail sales in the last six months, as dictated by Commerce data.

Total sales for the February through April period were up 6.6 percent annually. And when excluding autos, retail and food services sales in April were $334.5 billion, up 0.1 percent from March and up 5.9 percent from April 2011, said Commerce.

The NRF reported that April retail sales, which exclude autos, gas stations, and restaurants, were down 0.1 percent on a seasonally-adjusted basis from March and up 2.8 percent on an unadjusted basis annually.

“The expected shortfall in April retail sales reflects the seasonal shift in consumer spending at this time each year,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a statement. “With Easter a full twenty days earlier this year and unseasonably warm weather, consumers started spending as early as February and March on everything from spring apparel to newly-released electronic items.”

Even though retail sales continue to show slow and incremental growth, continued growth is needed over a longer period, as consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of U.S. economic activity. And while retail growth is relatively slow still, signals remain intact that the economy is showing some signs of recovery, with consumer confidence on the upswing to a large degree and recent monthly gains in employment, too, in recent months.

IHS Global Insight Senior Analyst Leslie Levesque wrote in a research note that retailers saw little gains in April as weather turned more seasonable after record warmth in the month prior. Levesque noted that building materials and clothing stores took the brunt of it as payback for earlier strength was ultimately realized in April.

“Our outlook on the American consumer remains relatively upbeat despite this lackluster report,” wrote Levesque. “All told, IHS Global Insight expects consumer spending adjusted for inflation growth to come in around 2.5 percent in the second quarter, slower than the 2.9 percent pace in the first, but still a decent stride.” 
As retail sales continue to show slight, incremental growth, freight volumes are also in modest growth mode overall. Volumes are ahead of where they were during the recession and still remain well-below pre-recession levels.

Unlike this time in 2010 and to an extent in 2011, retail sales are not getting an added boost from inventory re-building, which was especially prevalent during the first half of 2010.

As previously reported, the trend of slight or flat sequential retail sales increases remains largely intact due to fairly even retail spending at a time when retailers remain cautious on the inventory planning side and postponing commitments until the until the economic outlook becomes clearer, while they are risking stock outages by having very lean inventories.

“What are driving these gains are a confidence issue and a lack of fear due to the lack of negative change in the most recent employment data,” said Ben Hackett, president of Hackett Associates, in a recent interview. “The overall feeling from that is that it creates confidence, with consumers willing to draw down some of their savings and use it for expenditures. We are also seeing that in e-commerce sales, which can be harder to measure. In big retail stores, you are seeing an increase in sales, which can also be partially due to price increases, too. But you never know if it is pure volume or price or a mixture of the two. The strong [trade] flows suggest that there was an increase in volume as well as sales.”

Shippers have told LM that while sales are doing fairly well, they are optimistic that the second half of the year will bring about a more traditional Peak Season. Should this occur, there could be a more meaningful uptick in retail sales numbers on both a sequential and annual basis.

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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