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U.S. retail sales fell 1.1% in July as Delta variant and inflation threaten economic activity

August 17, 2021, 2:15 PM UTC

U.S. retail sales fell in July by more than forecast, reflecting a steady shift in spending toward services and indicating consumers may be growing more price conscious as inflation picks up.

The value of overall retail purchases dropped 1.1% last month following an upwardly revised 0.7% increase in June, Commerce Department figures showed Tuesday. The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 0.3% decrease. Excluding autos, sales decreased 0.4% in July.

Total receipts trailed estimates by a wide margin as declines in motor vehicle and e-commerce sales weighed on the figure. Restaurant spending increased, though at a more moderate pace than in previous months. 

The emergence of the Delta variant poses a risk to economic activity and could curb demand for services like travel and entertainment.

Higher prices for things like groceries, meals out, personal care and apparel risk limiting discretionary spending in the coming months. A report last week from the University of Michigan showed buying conditions deteriorated to the lowest since April of last year as inflation remained elevated. The retail sales data are not adjusted for price changes.

The retail data point to a softening in third-quarter consumer spending growth. Economists forecast outlays to grow at an annualized 4.5% pace in the current period, significantly slower than the pace estimated a month ago and a sharp deceleration from the sizzling 11.8% rate seen in the second quarter. 

Stock futures dropped, while the dollar and U.S. Treasuries rose.

This week includes earnings reports from many retailers, including Target Corp. and Macy’s Inc. Earlier Tuesday, Walmart Inc. posted stronger-than-expected comparable sales and the retail giant boosted its full-year outlook.

Results from Home Depot Inc., however, showed weaker-than-expected results that signal a cooling in the home-improvement boom.

According to the Commerce Department’s report, the drop in July sales was fairly broad with 8 of 13 categories registering decreases.

Sales at restaurants, the only services-spending category in the retail report, rose 1.7%, the smallest advance in five months. Restaurant spending could soften in the coming months, depending on the path of the Delta variant. Total card spending from Bank of America Corp., decelerated at the end of July, while OpenTable restaurant bookings have moderated.

Car dealers

Motor vehicle and parts dealer sales slumped 3.9% in July after a 2.2% slide a month earlier, likely in response to limited inventory and higher prices as automakers face supply chain constraints.

Sales at non-store retailers, which include e-commerce, fell 3.1% in July, a sharp slowdown from the prior month likely reflecting Amazon.com Inc.’s move of Prime Day—an annual sales event for online shoppers—to June.

There were also declines in sales at apparel retailers, building-supply outlets and furniture stores.

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, dropped 1% in July.

—With assistance from Jordan Yadoo and Sophie Caronello.

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