Total Retail Sales Growth Slows in March, Falls at Department and Apparel Stores

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Retail sales growth slowed in March compared to recent months.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s advance monthly report released last Friday disclosed that total retail sales, which includes gasoline, groceries and automobiles, totaled almost $471 billion last month—an impressive 5.7% increase over March 2016’s $447.7 billion, but a slight drop from last month.

On a 12-month smoothed basis, retail sales rose by only 3.8%, their smallest increase in seven months. Auto sales turned in their slowest growth in ten months as pent-up demand for cars is now satisfied and younger consumers eschew auto purchasing in favor of ride-sharing. Excluding auto, retail sales rose by 4.6%.

Department, chain and discount stores saw their sales plunge by 5.5% year over year, to $12.6 billion. On a 12-month smoothed basis, sales fell by 7.75%, their steepest drop in seven months.

Last month, government figures showed that clothing and accessories specialty stores had increased in February, but revised figures released last week show a decrease in February and flat sales in March due to an unforeseen decline in the women’s specialty store business. On a 12-month smoothed basis, March sales were down by 1%.

Sales of the combined department, chain, discount and specialty sectors, where most of the traditional retail apparel business is done, fell by 2% to $33.8 billion.

Sales at non-store retail, which includes pure-play e-commerce, increased by 9.7% in March, the first month of below double-digit growth in a year.

The total retail inventory-to-sales ratio dipped slightly in February for overall retail, but for the combined department and specialty store sectors, the measure increased compared to the prior month and the same month last year.

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