Retail Sales Post Strong Gain in September


Retail sales posted a stronger-than-expected gain and prices at the wholesale level jumped up significantly in September.

Shopper with Bloomingdales Bags

The Commerce Department reported Friday that retail sales increased 0.6 percent last month, compared to August, as a big increase in auto sales helped offset weak demand for clothing. The increase was double the gain that economists had been expecting and was also in contrast to reports Thursday of sluggish demand from the nation's leading retail chains.

The government data did show weakness at department stores and specialty clothing shops, where unusually warm weather dampened demand for fall clothing.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department said that gains in food and energy costs helped push the overall wholesale inflation figure up by 1.1 percent. Excluding those volatile categories, however, wholesale prices were up by a moderate 0.1 percent.

In other news, inventories held by businesses on shelves and backlots rose by 0.1 percent in August, lower than the 0.3 percent gain analysts had been expecting.

The weakness in sales at clothing stores was offset by another strong gain in auto sales, which jumped 1.2 percent in September following an even bigger 3.3 percent increase in August.

Sales at gasoline stations also rose strongly in September, up 2 percent following a 2.6 percent drop in August. However, this increase primarily reflected the fact that pump prices were rising last month after having declined the previous month.

The strength in retail sales should ease concerns that the worst slump in housing in 16 years and this summer's financial market turmoil could push the country into a recession.

The Federal Reserve last month cut a key interest rate for the first time in four years in an effort to make sure the economy's problems did not trigger a downturn. Some economists believe the Fed's September rate cut will be followed by another rate reduction in October.

The 1.1 percent rise in wholesale inflation, which followed a 1.4 percent drop in August, was more than double what economists had been expecting.

The big increase was driven by a 4.1 percent surge in energy prices in September, including an 8.4 percent jump in gasoline costs, the biggest rise for gasoline prices since March. Food costs surged by 1.5 percent.

The 0.6 percent rise in retail sales followed a more subdued 0.3 percent increase in August and was the biggest increase since a similar 0.6 percent rise in July.

Excluding autos, sales would have been up by 0.4 percent in September.

Outside of autos and gasoline, areas of strength included sales at grocery stores and electronics and appliance stores. Areas of weakness last month included department stores, down 0.5 percent; clothing stores, down 0.4 percent and furniture stores, down 0.6 percent. Furniture store sales have been hurt by the steep slump in home sales.