Winter Weather Wallops Retail Sales in February

Retail sales fell in February, surprising many who predicted that the recovering job market and relatively low gasoline prices would put consumers in a shopping mood during the first month of the fiscal retail year. However, severe winter weather — the lowest February temperatures in 26 years and the greatest snowfall in more than half a century — kept shoppers out of the malls.

According to data released Thursday by the Commerce Department, total retail sales fell by 0.6% from January. On a 12-month smoothed basis, the drop was 1.4%, the first decline since September 2009. On a year-over-year basis, total retail sales rose by 1.7% from February 2014, to $437 billion.

According to Big Data supplier RetailNext, brick-and-mortar store traffic dropped by 12.5% in February compared to the same month last year as cold and wintry weather kept shoppers from getting out to stores. There were double-digit drops in all key regions of the county, with the biggest declines in the South and Northeast.

Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) was the biggest sales and traffic day of the month, while Feb. 2, on which a major storm struck the Northeast, had the lowest store traffic and sales.

The Department of Commerce also reported that total retail inventory increased by 2 percent in January, resulting in a rise in the inventory-to-sales ratio.

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For the first time in more than four years, auto sales fell slightly in the month. Excluding autos, retail sales dropped by 1.6% on a smoothed basis. Rising gas prices caused sales at gas stations to increase slightly compared to January but remained well-below year-ago levels.

Department, chain and discount stores saw sales drop by a whopping 4.6% on a smoothed basis, their worst showing in 13 months.

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Apparel specialty stores managed to turn in an only 0.8% increase, resulting in a 1.4% drop for the combined sectors, often a barometer for apparel sales.

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Snowed-in shoppers apparently took to their computers, because e-commerce, or non-store retailing, enjoying an almost 9 percent sales increase in February, on top of January’s 5.7% rise.

Another bright spot was the restaurant sector, where sales rose by 6.4% on a 12-month smoothed basis. Though well below the almost double-digit gains of the previous several months, likely also due to the weather, people have been eating out more, particularly in casual restaurants.

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