U.S. retail sales unexpectedly declined month over month in April for the second time in three months, weighed down by soft sales of automobiles and building materials and suggesting consumer spending will remain subdued this quarter.
The value of overall sales declined 0.2% in April compared with March on an adjusted basis, after a 1.7% increase the prior month that was the strongest monthly gain since 2017, according to Commerce Department figures released Wednesday. Sales were up were up 3.1% unadjusted year over year.
Excluding automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants, retail sales were down 0.2% in April seasonally adjusted from March but up 5.2% unadjusted year over year.
Online and other non-store sales were up 11.9% year over year but down 0.2% month over month on a seasonally adjusted basis.
Sales in the “control group” subset, which some analysts view as a cleaner gauge of underlying consumer demand, were unchanged from the prior month, below projections for a 0.3% gain. The measure excludes food services, car dealers, building-materials stores and gasoline stations.
The figures suggest spending remains soft following the weakest quarterly increase in a year. That could bolster pressure from President Donald Trump and financial markets to cut borrowing costs amid unexpectedly low inflation, though Federal Reserve policy makers have pledged patience as steady job and income gains should support purchases in coming months.
The retail report followed another round of downbeat data from the Fed showing U.S. factory production fell in April for a third time in four months with a broad decline led by weakness in machinery and motor vehicles. The cooler readings on the world’s largest economy followed reports from China that industrial output, retail sales and investment all slowed more than economists forecast in April, underscoring challenges to global growth from Trump’s widening trade war.
The U.S. retail data are “a bit of a downer for the near-term economic outlook but do not move the big picture needle much,” Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities, said in a note. Recent seesaw patterns suggest there could be a “powerful bounceback in May.”
“We are wary of being overly pessimistic about the recent slowdown in consumer activity. Economic fundamentals are sound, and some measures have strengthened relative to periods earlier in the current cycle, particularly domestic activity,” Bloomberg economists Yelena Shulyatyeva and Carl Riccadonna write in a note.
Retailers may be poised to take a further hit should Trump follow through on his threat to impose tariffs of 25% on almost all remaining Chinese imports, which would likely force Americans to absorb higher prices. Unlike the previous targets of U.S. levies, the majority of this tranche is consumer goods.
The report showed seven of 13 major retail categories decreased sales month over month, with other down sectors including clothing, health and personal care, and electronics and appliances. Categories with increases included general merchandise and food and beverage stores.
Sales at automobile dealers fell 1.1%, the most since January, after increasing 3.2% in the previous month. Industry data from Wards Automotive Group previously showed unit sales retreated in April, touching the lowest level since 2017.
“Slower tax refunds and weather may have been key factors impacting April’s numbers, but the fundamentals remain positive, particularly in long-term comparisons,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz says, citing flooding in the middle of the country and blizzards and extreme temperature swings elsewhere along with a soft housing market that impacted sales of furniture, appliances and building materials. “Despite there being a lot of volatility in the data from month to month, the long-term comparisons look good and the three-month average in particular is getting stronger. We think we remain on track to meet our projections.”
The shift of Easter and Passover from March to April this year gave less of a month-over-month bump in spending than expected, but contributed to April’s strong year-over-year increase, Kleinhenz said.
NRF’s preliminary forecast projects that retail sales during 2019 will increase between 3.8% and 4.4% to more than $3.8 trillion. The forecast is subject to revision as more data is released in the coming months.