September Retail Sales Close Out Q3 as a Dud

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The U.S. Department of Commerce has reported that U.S. retail sales rose by only 0.1% during the month of September. This was handily under expectations as the Dow Jones consensus estimate had called for a gain of 0.7%. In raw dollar terms, this was $509 billion spent by consumers in retail stores and restaurants. Despite the monthly weakness, this was still up 4.7% from a year earlier.

September’s retail sales report is a bit tricky but, regardless of how you cut it, there are some disappointments. Backing out auto-related sales actually pointed toward retail sales down 0.1%, and the sales sans autos and gasoline were merely flat. Vehicle sales were up 0.8% in September, versus a 0.5% drop in August.

While there may be storm-related issues in the numbers, there was a 1.8% drop in sales at food services and drinking places in September. That was the largest month-over-month drop going back about two years.

As a reminder, retail sales matter for the larger snapshots of the economy. That’s because gross domestic product (GDP) is roughly 70% based on consumer spending. This was also the reading for the last month of the third quarter of 2018.

The Commerce Department did not quantify an impact from Hurricane Florence, but its notation on the report did include a point there. When showing the question of how much the areas with the biggest impact from Hurricane Florence typically represent of the nation’s retail and food services sales, the Census report said:

The monthly retail trade programs are not designed to measure retail and food services activity at specific geographic levels, so current estimates of spending in those areas are unavailable… We cannot isolate the effect of Hurricane Florence on the Advance Monthly Retail Trade and Food Services Survey (MARTS) estimates since the sample is designed to measure retail and food services activity at the national level and not at specific geographic areas.