US retail sales fall more than expected in July, as shortages hit motor industry

Retail sales dropped 1.1% but consumers increased spending at restaurants and bars

Sales at restaurants and bars in the US increased 38.4 per cent compared to July 2020. Photograph: iStock

Sales at restaurants and bars in the US increased 38.4 per cent compared to July 2020. Photograph: iStock


US retail sales fell more than expected in July as shortages depressed motor vehicle purchases and the boost to spending from the economy’s reopening and stimulus cheques faded, suggesting a slowdown in economic growth early in the third quarter.

The weak sales reported by the Commerce Department on Tuesday also reflected a rotation in spending back to services from goods. Retail sales mostly capture the goods component of consumer spending, which accounts for a smaller share, with bulky services such as healthcare, travel and hotel accommodation making up the rest.

Retail sales dropped 1.1 per cent last month and are 17.2 per cent above their pre-pandemic level.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales slipping 0.3 per cent. Sales increased 15.8 per cent compared to July last year.

Receipts at auto dealerships fell 3.9 per cent after declining 2.2 per cent in June. Motor vehicle production has been hampered by a global shortage of semiconductors.

However, consumers increased spending at restaurants and bars, leading to a 1.7 per cent rise in receipts. Sales at restaurants and bars increased 38.4 per cent compared to July 2020. Restaurants and bars are the only services category in the retail sales report. Sales at electronics and appliance stores gained 0.3 per cent.

Return to school boost

The school year gets into full swing later in August and most education districts are reverting to in-person learning. As such, consumer spending is likely to remain strong and keep the economy growing, though rising Covid-19 cases and a plunge in consumer sentiment this month to a decade low are wild cards.

“If anything, today’s data suggests that spending is not keeping pace at the start of the third quarter after the fiscal stimulus-fuelled and re-opening-led surge in consumption growth in second quarter,” said Kevin Cummins, chief US economist at NatWest Markets in Stamford, Connecticut.

“We still expect sales to bounce back for the quarter as a whole. Spending will benefit from recent strength in job gains and a boost from back-to-school spending as kids begin to return to in-school classrooms.”

There was some encouraging news, with a separate report from the Federal Reserve on Tuesday showing motor vehicle output surged 11.2 per cent in July as automakers either pared or cancelled annual retooling shutdowns to work around the chip shortage. That boosted manufacturing production last month.

Online retail sales dropped 3.1 per cent, payback after Amazon. com pulled forward its Prime Day to June from July. Sales at clothing stores fell 2.6 per cent. A rebound is expected as parents shop for the new school year. Qualifying households in mid-July started receiving money under the expanded Child Tax Credit programme, which will run through December.

Sales at building material stores fell as did receipts at sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores.

The National Retail Federation said July’s decline did “nothing to derail our outlook for a record year,” noting that consumer finances were in good shape. The labour market is strengthening, while higher stock and house prices are boosting household wealth.

Stocks on Wall Street slipped after the benchmark S&P 500 and the Dow industrials closed at record highs on Monday. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. US Treasury prices were higher.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales fell 1.0 per cent last month after an upwardly revised 1.4 per cent increase in June. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. They were previously estimated to have accelerated 1.1 per cent in June.

Spending is shifting from goods to services like travel and entertainment, with more than 50 per cent of the United States’ population fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

Rising infections driven by the Delta variant of the coronavirus could, however, slow the services spending boom. – Reuters