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Revised retail sales cloud February results

WASHINGTON -An upward revision by the U.S. Department of Commerce in its January retail-sales figure roiled the viewpoint on February's retail sales.

In reporting the February data, the Commerce Department said sales from general-merchandise stores, including department stores and mass merchants, totaled $26.7 billion, up 0.5 percent from the January total. Commerce also punched up its January sales figure to $26.6 billion from the previously reported $26.5 billion.

The department did the same with the overall retail-sales figure, which in February declined 0.2 percent to $274.5 billion. Commerce also put its revised January sales figure at nearly $275 billion, as opposed to the previously reported $273.3 billion.

The numbers jockeying, aside from making most observers' heads somewhat woozy, also provided a cloudy picture of the true state of retail as the first quarter of 2001 draws to a close. In particular, the general-merchandise result did not square with what the major U.S. chains reported on their February sales two weeks ago. One-half of the chains tracked in this newspaper said their same-store sales fell in February.

Typical of the feelings among retailer watchers, Anthony Karydakis, retail analyst for Banc One Capital Markets, Inc., noted the surprise in the decline of the overall retail figure. Observing the refixing of the January numbers, Karydakis added, "The amount by which February's numbers surprised us on the down side is equivalent to the amount by which the numbers were revised upward in January."

Karydakis' somewhat confused comment can be forgiven, as can his following statement: "The key question regarding retail sales is whether the weakness in February is the beginning of a softer trend in spending, or simply an understandable payback for an exceptionally strong number in January. Our sense is that it is probably more of the latter, but the extent of that cannot be determined until we see the numbers for March."

David Orr, chief economist of First Union Economics Group, also presented a rosy view of the January-February situation (without implying that the February statistics were taking vengeance on January's numbers for being revised upward).

"The general tone of the report looked fairly decent," Orr said, observing that six of the nine major retail categories covered by Commerce actually rose last month over January. The biggest gains were posted by building materials stores (up 1.6 percent) and drug and proprietary stores (up 0.8 percent).

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