Refund checks help 'fuel' August sales

Don Hogsett, September 24, 2001

With refund checks starting to arrive in consumers' mail boxes, and gas prices starting to climb once again, U.S. retail sales edged up by 0.2 percent in August, improving modestly after two substantially flat summer months in June and July.

At a seasonally adjusted level of $265.8 billion, sales expanded by roughly $620 million from a preliminary July figure of $265.2 billion.

Helping to fuel August sales higher were sharply higher prices at the pump, the agency reported, with gas station sales climbing by 1.4 percent, to a seasonally adjusted level of $20.1 billion from $19.8 billion the prior month. Gas prices started climbing once again in August, siphoning dollars away from other retail categories, after lower prices helped pushed gas station sales down by 4.2 percent in July., providing some relief to consumers.

Increased gas station sales helped offset a not unexpected 0.2 percent decline in car sales, which fell to $72.3 billion from $72.4 billion the prior month. Without the big rebates and incentives offered during the first half of every year, car sales historically taper off during the back half.

Excluding the volatile auto sector, retail sales were up by 0.5 percent in August, to a seasonally adjusted level of $220.8 billion from $219.7 billion the prior month.

Sales in furniture and home furnishings stores dipped by 0.1 percent in August, to $7.7 billion, heading south after a solid 0.4 percent increase the previous month. It was the first decline in this key category following two straight monthly gains.

But consumers continued to find other ways to fix up their homes, and sales of building materials and garden supplies were up a robust 0.9 percent, rebounding from a small decline in July.

If consumers weren't buying sofas and chairs or sheets and towels, they were stocking up on DVD players, and sales in electronics and appliance stores advanced by 0.3 percent, to $7.3 billion, a second straight monthly increase.

While furniture and home furnishings stores were off during the month, general merchandise stores recorded a 0.4 percent increase, to $35.2 billion from $35.1 billion in July.

One of the biggest disappointments during August was a deep 0.8 percent drop in spending at clothing stores, to $14.2 billion from $14.4 billion the prior month.

Sales at department stores, a number that includes the nation's big mass merchant channel, expanded by 0.6 percent, excluding leased departments, to $19.9 billion from $19.8 billion.

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