Retail sales gains slow in January lull

Posted Feb. 15 at 11:53 a.m.

Retailers logged slight increases in store sales last month as consumers focused primarily on paying for groceries and gasoline, the government reported Tuesday.

The Commerce Department said total retail sales rose 0.3 percent last month.

Economists surveyed by on average had forecast an increase of 0.5 percent for January, compared to a 0.6 percent gain in December.

Despite missing expectations, the January increase was the seventh consecutive gain in the government measure, indicating that consumers have been shopping for discretionary goods more in recent months than a year earlier.

“January is generally a clearance month for leftover holiday merchandise,” said Ken Perkins, president of sales tracker Retail Metrics. “Consumers also typically take a breather in January. That is more the case this year, especially after the shopping strength that we saw in both November and December.

“So I wouldn’t be too concerned about the softer increases in the month,” Perkins said.

Sales excluding autos and auto parts also rose a weaker-than-expected 0.3 percent, compared to a 0.5 percent increase in ex-auto sales in December.

Economists had forecast a rise of 0.6 percent in the measure for January, according to

The government report showed gasoline station sales increased 1.4 percent in January, boosted by higher prices in recent weeks. Grocery store sales also increased 1.4 percent in the month while online sales rose 1.2 percent.

But sales at electronics stores increased a modest 0.3 percent. Sales were up 0.5 percent at department stores and 0.8 percent at general merchandise sellers.

Offsetting those, building material sales slumped 2.9 percent, and sales at sporting goods and music stores fell 1.3 percent. Also, furniture store sales dipped. And consumers cut back on new clothes, resulting in a 0.3 percent decline in apparel store sales.

The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest group said in a statement Tuesday that a sustained uptick in retail sales will depend on the direction of economy.

“In spite of the economic uncertainties that still exist, consumers are clearly demonstrating their desire to spend on discretionary items once again,” federation CEO Matthew Shay said Tuesday.

Factors, including stock market gains, tax cuts, income growth and savings built up during the recession are contributing to the recent increase in consumer spending, the group said.

“The industry is certainly benefiting from the renewed confidence we’re seeing in shoppers, although sustained growth in 2011 will largely rely on improvement in key economic indicators like employment and housing,” Shay said.

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