Economy Watch: Retail Sales See Healthy Uptick in March

Most retail categories did better this March compared with last year, with car sales driving most of the monthly gain, the Census Bureau reported.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, March 2018

U.S. retail and food services sales in March came in at $494.6 billion, for an increase of 0.6 percent compared with February, the Census Bureau reported on Monday. Compared with March 2017, the total is 4.7 percent higher. Total retail sales in the first quarter of 2018 were up as well, by 4.1 percent compared with the same quarter in 2017.

Much of the monthly gain was driven by car sales, which were up a full 2 percent in March, the largest monthly gain for any sector. For the year, car sales were up 4.5 percent. Without car sales, the total retail sales gain for the month was 0.2 percent. Compared with last year, however, car sales didn’t make that much difference: total retail sales were 4.5 percent higher when car sales are factored out.

Winning categories

The other major winning retail category for the month was health and personal care stores, which spiked 1.4 percent compared with February. For the year, that category enjoyed an increase of 0.8 percent in sales. Also up for the month, each by less than 1 percent, were furniture stores, electronics stores. grocery stores, restaurants and of course non-store (Internet) sales, which were up 0.8 percent.

The biggest losers for the month seemed to be weather-related, since much of the United States has experienced a cold early spring. Sales at building material and garden equipment and supplies stores were off 0.6 percent for the month, though they were up 5.3 percent for the year. Clothing stores suffered a 0.8 percent drop in sales in March, but were likewise up for the year, by 1.8 percent.

Most retail categories did better compared with last year. One exception was sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, as the Internet chipped away at their sales, which were down 3.3 percent for the year. Department store sales were down 0.9 percent for the year. For its part, Internet sales were up 9.7 percent for the year.

The bureau adjusts for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, but on the whole, inflation remains modest for most retail goods. One exception is gasoline, whose price tends to yo-yo around. In March, gas sales were down 0.3 percent, as the price dropped a little, but for the year, gas sales gained 9.7 percent, since prices are higher now than last year.