January Retail Sales Decline More Than Expected

(Los Angeles Times/TNS) -

Retail sales took a deeper-than-expected dive in January, as consumers continued to keep a tight check on their spending.

In January, retail sales fell 0.8 percent to $439.8 billion, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Wall Street analysts had predicted a 0.5 percent drop.

The falloff in spending comes after retail sales dipped 0.9 percent in December, the biggest drop since January 2014. Economists say consumers are still keeping a tight grip on their wallets despite a good job market and falling gas prices that put more money in their pockets.

Retail sales account for a big chunk of consumer spending, the primary engine of American economic output. They are closely watched as a barometer of consumer confidence.

Some economists said any decline in spending should be offset soon by strong job growth.

“Retail sales were very strong in the second half of 2014, so a small dropoff is unlikely to represent a major change in direction,” Mike Jakeman, global analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a statement. “We are still satisfied that the U.S. economy will grow rapidly in 2015.”

In January, six out of 13 major categories recorded a decline.

Consumers spent 0.8 percent less on clothing and accessories, while furniture sales slipped 0.7 percent. Department-stores sales dropped 0.7 percent.

Falling gas prices — which sent gas stations’ sales falling 9.3 percent last month — have so far failed to ignite large amounts of spending. Despite a recent uptick, consumers have enjoyed months of declining prices at the pump, with the national average hitting close to $2 a gallon in late January.

One big obstacle to splurging, experts said, has been stagnant wage growth that has persisted in spite of an improving labor market. But there has been some good news of late: In January, average hourly earnings rose by 12 cents to $24.75, after falling five cents in December. The 0.5 percent gain was the best since late 2008.