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First Cut: March retail sales close out the quarter with a solid increase

Retail and food sales were up 1.6% in March from February after an unrevised down 0.2% in February from January, and a small upward revision to up 0.8% in January from December (previously up 0.7%). Year-over-year, sales were up 3.6% from March 2018.

Excluding motor vehicles, retail and foods sales were up 1.2% in March after down 0.2% in February (previously -0.4%) and unrevised at up 1.4% in January. Sales excluding motor vehicles were also up 3.6% from a year-ago.

“Core” retail sales — sales excluding motor vehicles, building materials, and gasoline — were up 1.0% compared to the prior month and up 3.7% from a year-ago.

Sales were well above expectations both at the headline and core. If the underlying pace of sales is slower than in 2018, it is still one of reasonably healthy activity for the retail sector.

Sales at auto and other motor vehicle dealers were up 3.3% month-over-month, a solid rebound after a weak February.

Sales at gasoline stations were up 3.5% in March, the same as in February as prices at the pump have steadily risen for the past two months and remain on that trajectory for April.

In fact, all major components were up except for a small decline of 0.3% in sporting goods.

Sales probably benefited from the arrival of tax refunds, milder weather that engendered demand for spring merchandise, and generally improve consumer confidence after the uncertainties related to the partial federal government shutdown.

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