Improving Job Market Fails to Stimulate Retail Sales in April

Retail sales were flat in April compared to March, surprising many who expected the arrival of warm, dry weather in much of the country, and the recovering employment picture, to get consumers spending again.

Total retail and food service sales rose by .9% compared to last April, to $436 billion, according to data released Wednesday by the Commerce Department. On a 12-month smoothed basis, sales were up only negligibly, even though 223,000 jobs were added in the economy during the month, causing unemployment to drop to 5.4%.

According to Big Data supplier RetailNext, brick-and-mortar store traffic fell by 14.6% in April, a steeper drop than March’s 8.2% decline.  Compared to last April, average transaction value rose by 1.4%, and sales per shopper edged up by 2.4%. Retail sales were strongest in the last two weeks of the month. Warm weather drove many people into stores looking for seasonal merchandise. Store traffic declined in all key regions of the county in the month, with the biggest declines in the South and Northeast.

Once again auto sales drove most of the gains. Excluding autos, retail sales declined by almost .8% on a smoothed basis, dragged down by sluggish sales at department, specialty apparel, electronics and appliance stores.

Restaurants again outperformed other sectors, turning in yet another month of high-single-digit growth.

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Sales at department, chain and discount stores plunged by 4.4% on a smoothed basis, their fifth straight month of declining sales. Macy’s and J.C. Penney, both of whom reported first-quarter sales and earnings results on Wednesday, said that April sales were unexpectedly soft.  

Retail2 Apparel specialty stores fared somewhat better, rising by 1.9%, just under March’s 2 percent increase on a 12-month smoothed basis. The combined department and specialty sector saw a 0.7% decrease in sales on a 12-month smoothed basis, down from a 1 percent increase. Both sectors continue to suffer from an extremely promotional competitive environment.

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