US retail sales up 0.6 percent but signs of caution emerge

WASHINGTON — U.S. shoppers stepped up their spending in September, with sharply higher sales at auto dealers, restaurants and gas stations. But the government’s retail sales report released Friday also contained some evidence that spending might be slowing.

For much of this year, consumers have spent at a solid pace as income gains have accelerated and the job market has improved. Last month’s overall retail sales gain was a decent seasonally adjusted 0.6 percent. Much of it, though, was due to higher oil prices, which increased how much people spent at gas stations but were not necessarily a sign of stronger consumer spending.

September’s overall increase in retail sales marked a rebound from August’s sluggish 0.2 percent gain, the Commerce Department said. During the first nine months of the year, retail sales have increased 2.9 percent compared with 2015. Increased sales have helped propel economic growth and have offset a diminished U.S. manufacturing base and broader weaknesses in the global economy.

The results were enough to sustain optimism among some analysts.

“This morning’s report provides confirmation that the American consumer remains a key driver of economic growth as we slowly approach the very important holiday shopping season,” said Michael Dolega, a senior economist at TD Bank.

Higher oil prices drove a 2.4 percent increase in sales at gas stations last month, though purchases remain down on a year-over-year basis because of previous price declines. Spending at restaurants improved 0.8 percent in September. Auto dealers, building materials stores and furnishers notched monthly gains of 1 percent or more.

Department stores suffered a 0.7 percent sales decline in September, part of a long-term slowdown for the anchor tenants at many shopping malls that increasingly must compete with online outlets. But even online sales were soft. They rose a mere 0.3 percent in September, compared with recent monthly gains averaging nearly 1 percent.

Some analysts took a more downbeat view of retail sales, noting that corporate profits are being squeezed. And there are signs of fragility: Excluding motor vehicles and gasoline, sales rose just 0.3 percent in September after being flat in August and declining 0.2 percent in July.

“We continue to believe that pressure on corporate profit margins will spur aggressive cost-cutting measures which will increasingly impinge on the pace of job growth through the course of next year,” said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at the consultant MFR. “We therefore feel that the consumer is unlikely to be able to sustain a substantial ‘engine of growth’ role as we move through 2017.”

But with more money in their pockets, shoppers may spend more during the upcoming holiday season, when retailers can earn 40 percent of their annual revenue, the Los Angeles Times reported. The National Retail Federation has predicted that November and December sales will grow 3.6 percent to $655.8 billion compared with the same period in 2015.

“Consumers have seen steady job and income gains throughout the year, resulting in continued confidence and the greater use of credit, which bodes well for more spending throughout the holiday season,” Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the retail group, said in a recent statement, the Times reported.

Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity, increased at a 4.3 percent annual rate in the April-June quarter. That increase fueled much of the overall estimated annualized economic growth rate of just 1.4 percent during the April-June quarter.

Employers added 156,000 jobs in September. Unemployment ticked up to 5 percent because more people — drawn by recent job growth— began looking for work.

In September, average hourly pay rose 6 cents to $25.79 and is now 2.6 percent higher than it was a year ago. The pace of wage growth has strengthened in recent months, with pay rising at only about 2 percent annually for much of the seven-year recovery from the Great Recession.

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