Economy Watch: Retail Sales Off in March

Consumers pulled back their spending in March, according to the Census Bureau, with total U.S. retail sales down 0.4 percent month-over-month.

Consumers pulled back their spending in March, according to the Census Bureau on Friday, with total U.S. retail sales down 0.4 percent month-over-month. Spending was still up 2.8 percent compared with March 2012. The bureau adjusts spending estimates for seasonal variations, holidays and the like, but not for price changes.

Factoring out gasoline, sales for the month dropped only 0.2 percent, since gas prices started falling in March from February highs (sales at gas stations were down 2.2 percent for the month). AAA reports that as of Sunday, the average price for a gallon of regular is 16.3 cents lower than it was a month earlier. Take auto sales out, and the drop in retail spending for the month was precisely the same as the overall average, 0.4 percent.

Not many types of retailers saw sales advances in March, according to the report. Furniture stores saw a 0.9 percent month-over-month increase, and restaurants and bars experienced 0.7 percent growth. Catalog and Internet sales were up 0.3 percent for the month. Besides gas stations, another loser for the month was electronics stores, which saw sales chipped away by 1.6 percent. However, most categories of retailers saw year-over-year increases.

Housing inventories see uptick (which is operated by the National Association of Realtors) reported on Friday that the total number of residential property units for sale in the United States in March—single-family, townhouse, condo and coops—was nearly 1.53 million units. That was an inventory increase from February of 2.36 percent, but a drop of 15.22 percent when compared with March 2012.

Most of the year-over-year decline stems from market conditions in California. The 10 markets with the largest year-over-year declines in inventory are Stockton-Lodi, Sacramento, Orange County, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles-Long Beach, Ventura, San Diego and Riverside-San Bernardino, as well as Seattle, the only market outside of California on the list.

In 134 of the 146 markets tracks, housing inventory decreased since this time last year. Fifty-five markets saw their inventories shrink by 20 percent since last year, according to, through a combined of sales to homeowners, sales to investors (or speculators) and a slow pace of new development.

Consumers feeling grumpier again

Consumer sentiment is down so far in April, according to the preliminary Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index released on Friday, which came in at 72.3. That was down from March’s final reading of 78.6, and considerably less than expected. Since the technical end of the recession, consumer sentiment has been bouncing around, but mostly on the low side of historic averages.

Wall Street likewise was a bit glum on Friday, heading down slightly from record highs. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost a scant 0.08 points, or less than 0.01 percent, but the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq were down 0.28 percent and 0.16 percent, respectively.