WASHINGTON Consumers, beset by a credit crunch, rising energy and food costs and a prolonged housing slump, stayed away from the malls in March. Retail sales posted only a small increase after a big drop in February.
The Commerce Department reported Monday that retail sales edged up 0.2 percent in March after a 0.4 percent decline in February.
The March gain primarily reflected higher costs for gasoline, which climbed to record highs. Excluding a big 1.1 percent rise in sales at gasoline service stations, retail sales would have been flat last month.
The new report did nothing to dispel worries that consumers will cut back so sharply on spending that the country will tumble into a recession. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of total economic activity.
Consumer confidence plunged to the lowest reading in 26 years in early April, according to the University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index, underscoring the pressures that households are facing and raising the likelihood that retail sales will remain depressed in coming months.
"There's no question the trend in core sales is slowing sharply, led by housing-related sectors," said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. "All businesses reliant on discretionary spending will suffer."
In other economic news, the Commerce Department said that inventories held by businesses on shelves and backlots increased by 0.6 percent in February after an even bigger 0.9 percent gain in January.
The increase in inventories, while boosting overall economic output in the first quarter, will likely act as a drag in coming months as businesses cut back on production to reduce stockpiles to more comfortable levels.
The 0.2 percent increase in retail sales was slightly better than the 0.1 percent increase that analysts had expected, and the February decline was revised from an even-bigger 0.6 percent plunge that had been initially reported.
However, the March gain reflected the big jump in sales at gasoline service stations. Sales in most areas either declined or posted lackluster increases such as a tiny 0.2 percent rise in auto sales.
Sales at department stores and general merchandise stores such as Wal-Mart fell by 0.6 percent in March, while sales at specialty clothing stores were down 0.5 percent. Demand at these stores had been hurt by the fact that Easter came extremely early this year at a time when much of the country was still blanketed by frigid weather that chilled people's inclination to go shopping for spring clothes.
Sales were also down at furniture stores, building supply stores and appliance stores, all areas where demand has been hurt by the bursting of the housing bubble. In addition to the 1.1 percent increase in sales at gasoline service stations, sales were up 0.3 percent at grocery stores, a gain that probably reflected continued big rises in food costs.
Consumers are battling a number of problems, from soaring energy prices that have pushed gasoline pump prices up to record levels well above $3 per gallon, to a prolonged housing slump that has seen home prices plummet in many parts of the country, leaving consumers feeling less well off.
Many economists believe the country has fallen into a recession that they believe will be short and relatively mild, ending this summer when 130 million households start spending their rebate checks from an economic stimulus package that Congress passed in February.
President Bush talked Monday with members of his Cabinet about the troubled U.S. economy and urged lawmakers to make his tax cuts permanent. Noting that income taxes are due on Tuesday, Bush said the economic stimulus package will allow some tax payments to be returned to taxpayers.
"One way Congress can act is to make the tax cuts permanent. If they really are that concerned about economic uncertainty, they ought to create certainty in the tax code."
He said his administration has set up programs to help more homeowners stay in their houses, but that Congress also needs to modernize the Federal Housing Administration and implement other changes that will encourage the housing market to turnaround.
"Congress recently has been working on legislation for beach monitoring and landscape conservation, and those are important issues, but not nearly as important as FHA modernization and the Colombia Free Trade Agreement or making the tax cuts permanent," Bush said.