U.S. Retail Sales Unexpectedly Fell in April

Retail sales in the United States fell in April, suggesting that economic growth was sluggish as the second quarter began.

Retail sales declined by a seasonally adjusted 0.2 percent in April from a month earlier, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Economists had forecast sales to rise 0.2 percent.

Falling sales hit most major areas of retail, including online sales, autos, home and garden centers, clothing shops, pharmacies, and electronic stores.

Sales at gas stations were up but that gain was due to higher gasoline prices. That’s not generally viewed as positive for economic growth.

The weaker auto sales and stronger gas station sales were both widely expected. But the decline in electronics and appliance sales, following on a weak March, was not expected.  Furniture store sales, which declined sharply in March, failed to bounce back and were flat for the month.

Department store sales rose 0.7 percent, a bright spot in an otherwise glum report. Macy’s reported first-quarter earnings on Wednesday that smashed analyst expectations to the upside. Its stock jumped on the news. Still, sales were below last year’s figures.

Americans did spend more eating out. Restaurants sales rose 0.2 percent on top of the huge March surge of 5.7 percent.

Excluding the volatile categories of autos and gas, core retail sales fell 0.2 percent in April.

The s0-called “control group”–which excludes autos, gas, and construction materials–was flat for the month. This is the figure that feeds into calculations of gross domestic product. As a result, real-time estimates of second-quarter GDP growth are likely to decline after Wednesday’s report.

Retail sales for March were revised up to show 1.7 percent growth, but that is old news that will not help second-quarter GDP. Combined with February’s decline, these results highlight just how volatile retail sales have been this year. It is possible that unseasonable weather and a late Easter holiday is skewing the seasonally adjusted figures.

Some households reportedly received tax refunds that were lower than expected due to lower withholding throughout the year. That could have taken away some of the boost April sales typically get from taxpayers spending most of their refund checks.