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March 16, 2022 10:25 AM, EDT

Retail Sales Soften as High Gasoline Costs Begin to Bite

RetailMichael Nagle/Bloomberg News

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Growth in U.S. retail sales slowed in February after surging a month earlier, suggesting that consumers tempered their spending in some categories as inflation limited purchasing power.

The value of overall retail purchases increased 0.3%, after an upwardly revised 4.9% gain in January, Commerce Department figures showed March 16.



The February advance was led by a 5.3% jump in spending for gasoline. Excluding gas stations, sales fell 0.2% last month. The figures aren’t adjusted for inflation.

For Federal Reserve policymakers, the retail figures suggest only a modest change in consumer spending behavior against a backdrop of soaring inflation that may worsen in the months ahead. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent gasoline prices to a record and is adding to cost pressures more broadly through soaring commodities.

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Even so, American households are on solid footing with the unemployment rate at 3.8% and disposable income rising throughout much of the pandemic.

“The sales roller coaster between October and February reflected an atypical seasonal pattern through the holidays that pushed sales forward and backward out of December, and an omicron headwind in December and January,” Kim Rupert and Mike Englund, economists at Action Economics, said in a note.

The figures come ahead of a Fed rate decision later March 16 where policymakers are expected to raise the federal funds rate for the first time since 2018 in an effort to curb the hottest inflation in 40 years. At the same time, Fed officials need to be cognizant of the impact on economic growth from even higher prices.

The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey called for a 0.4% gain in overall retail sales from the prior month. Inflation-adjusted consumer spending data for February that includes services will be released March 31.

Seven of the 13 retail categories showed growth last month. Outside of gas stations, restaurants and bars, motor vehicle dealers and hobby stores also rose. Nonstore retailers, the second-largest sales category and volatile from month to month, pulled back after surging at the start of the year.

Receipts at grocery stores, electronics outlets and personal care merchants also fell in February.

So-called control group sales — which are used to calculate gross domestic product and exclude food services, auto dealers, building materials stores and gasoline stations — fell 1.2% in February from a month earlier. At the same time, the decline followed a sharp 6.7% surge in January.

With assistance from Reade Pickert and Sophie Caronello.

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