Commerce Dept.: October Retail Sales Slip—The Sandy Effect?

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Consumers crowded in shopping lines ahead of Superstorm Sandy hitting the Northeastern coast.

Washington—Blame it on Hurricane Sandy, consumers pulling back on spending after splurging on back to school sales, or election fatigue, but October retail sales declined after three months of increases, the U.S. Commerce Department reported today.

Total spending, including gas and autos, was down 0.3% to $411.6 billion. Excluding autos, gas and building materials, so-called core retail sales fell 0.1% which followed a 0.9% increase in September. Economists’ average estimate had expected a 0.2% rise.

Of the 13 major categories tracked by the Commerce Department, eight showed a decline. Sales of apparel and accessories declined 0.1% but were still 5.5% above October 2011 sales.

Even nonstore retail, which includes online, posted a rare decline of 1.8%.

The effects of Superstorm Sandy, which affected about nine Northeastern states, resulting in mass destruction along coastlines and cut power to more than 8 million homes and businesses, have been blamed for sales decreased on everything from autos to discretionary items.

The Commerce Department wouldn’t quantify Sandy’s impact. “Even though we cannot isolate the effect, we did receive indications from the companies that the hurricane had both positive and negative effects on the retail sales data,” the Commerce Department said in a statement.

‘Uncertainties About Taxes’?

According to MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse retail data service, sales in the Northeast dropped 20% due to Sandy. The Northeast, which accounts for about 24% of total retail sales, generated about $15 billion for the week Sandy hit ending Nov. 3 while typical retail sales that week should have been about $18.7 billion.

While several retailers reported that Sandy was responsible for lost sales due to store closures, some economists speculated there was more to the sales slowdown than Sandy.

“Looking past Sandy’s impact, U.S. consumers appeared to dial it back a notch,” said Robert Kavcic, an economist at BMO Capital Markets. “There was relatively broad-based weakness in this report.”

“There’s probably some hurricane impact, but when consumers are cautious they tend to spend more on staples than discretionary items, and that’s exactly what happened this month,” said Neil Dutta, head of U.S. economics at Renaissance Macro Research LLC who correctly forecast the decline in sales. “The broad story is that consumers remain cautious.”

“Some of it is due to hurricane taking away some discretionary sales,” said Jonathan Basile, director of U.S. economics at Credit Suisse. “Spending still seems subpar, and consumers are facing headwinds on their paychecks and incomes. They’re also faced with uncertainties about taxes going into year-end.”

Since consumer spending accounts for some 70% of the U.S. economy, spending patterns are analyzed closely. Heading into the prime holiday shopping period may see a rebound in the overall spending numbers, but economists have predicted a weaker spending rate of about 1.5% for the October to December quarter.



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