Retail sales dip raises worries about recovery

n The second straight decline suggests consumers aren’t ready to open wallets.
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON – Retail sales fell in April for a second straight month, dashing hopes that consumer spending was starting to revive and would help end the recession.
Economists said families who are worried about layoffs and unpaid job furloughs are saving more and spending less, delaying the start of a sustained recovery.
Retail sales fell 0.4 percent last month, worse than the flat performance many economists had expected, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday.
Retail sales had posted gains in January and February after falling for six straight months. The gains had raised hopes that the crucial consumer sector of the economy might be stabilizing. But the setbacks in March and April retail sales cast doubts on that prospect.
“People are obviously still very nervous and not spending,” said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard amp& Poor’s in New York. “The economy is still in a recession, and I don’t think we will hit bottom until late summer or early fall.”
Meanwhile, more than 342,000 households received at least one foreclosure-related notice in April, up 32 percent from the same month last year, RealtyTrac Inc. said Wednesday. April was the second straight month with more than 300,000 households receiving a foreclosure filing.
Analysts said the economy should benefit in coming months from the tax relief included in the $787 billion stimulus plan Congress passed in February. But the extra $17 a week that the average family will receive won’t translate into a major boost in spending.
Such modest relief is hardly enough to negate the effects of layoffs and employee furloughs, shrunken retirement accounts and home equity, and consumers struggling to boost savings because of fears about the future.
Anecdotal evidence had signaled some improvement in sales in recent weeks. But “to offset the plunge in wealth, the household saving rate still needs to double from the current rate of 4 percent,” Paul Dales, U.S. economist with Capital Economics in Toronto, wrote in a research note.
The fall in retail sales in April came even though car sales posted a 0.2 percent increase. Excluding autos, the drop in retail sales would have been 0.5 percent – much worse than the 0.2 percent gain economists had expected.
Sales other than autos showed widespread weakness last month. Demand at department stores and general merchandise stores fell 0.1 percent. Sales at specialty clothing stores dropped 0.5 percent.
Sales also fell in April at furniture stores, electronic and appliance stores, food and beverage stores and gasoline stations, the Commerce Department said.
The sales drop at department stores and specialty clothing stores came as a surprise since the nation’s big chain stores had reported better-than-expected results for April. Same-store sales rose 0.7 percent last month compared with April 2008. It was the first overall increase in six months, according to the tally by Goldman Sachs and the International Council of Shopping Centers.
In a separate report, the Commerce Department said business inventories fell 1 percent in March, a seventh straight decrease. That’s the longest stretch since businesses cut inventories for 15 straight months in 2001 and 2002, during the last recession.

Data Stream

Click video to hear audio