September retail sales fell 0.3% from August, though they rose 4% year over year, the U.S. Department of Commerce said Wednesday.
Even nonstore retailers (mostly e-commerce) fell 0.3% from the previous month, rising 12.9% from last year, according to the federal report. The declines hit most segments, with furniture and home stores, and drugstores each notching a 0.6% gain and clothing stores rising a relatively robust 1.3% from August. Electronics and appliance stores were flat.
Using the government's numbers, the National Retail Federation reported a 0.1% seasonally adjusted sales decline from August, but a 4.5% unadjusted year-over-year increase. The NRF's take excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants.
The sales decline last month is an unpleasant surprise — the first in seven months — and a poor harbinger of consumer activity for the holidays.
The American economy generally, and the holiday season more specifically, depend on consumer spending. Signs of weakness, and even of a recession, have shown up for months, but consumers had kept things simmering for half the year. A lot of factors may be tempering that, including tariff volatility, a persistent wage gap that appears to be worsening and rising consumer debt.
"The pullback in September compared with August is possibly a reaction to increased fears over U.S.-China tensions," according to a statement from Jack Kleinhenz, NRF Chief Economist, who noted that measuring September sales is "tricky" due to seasonal factors like the end of summer and back to school, and because an early Labor Day this year may have pushed some spending to August. "While uncertainty around trade policy and other issues has dampened consumer sentiment recently, consumers still have a lot going for them as evidenced by longer-term trends and factors like the tight labor market."
Wells Fargo Senior Economist Tim Quinlan on Wednesday said that the government's upward revision of its August retail numbers "softened the blow somewhat" but deemed the September performance a signal of a slowdown, not a collapse.
"Still, with the recent deterioration in consumer confidence and broad-based declines across various types of merchants, this report is the first hard data to indicate cracks in one of the key pillars of the economy that, so far, had been holding up rather well," he wrote in an emailed note. "Amid the ongoing trade war and worries about a potential recession, the strength of consumer spending has been a needed counterweight. Today’s 0.3% decline in September retail sales is the first crack in the foundation."
Moody's Investors Service analysts weren't alarmed by September's result, noting in emailed comments that they "continue to expect that increased consumer confidence, wage growth, low unemployment and the strong macro-economic environment in the US will result in 2019 retail sales growth of over 4.0%."
That strength is found among retailers that cater to spending-conscious consumers, however. Moody's Vice President Mickey Chadha said that sales growth will be "led by e-commerce players like Amazon, off-price retailers like TJX and Ross, value and convenience-oriented retailers like Dollar General and Dollar Tree and discounters and warehouse clubs like Walmart and Target."