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U.S. retail sales flat for another month

U.S. retail sales remained virtually unchanged for a second straight month, the Commerce Department reported, held in check by slumping car sales and lower gas prices.

At a seasonally adjusted level of $291.7 billion, total July retail sales barely edged ahead of a revised June level of $291.6 million, in a persistently sluggish retail environment.

Hunting for a silver lining, in a modestly bullish sign that consumers haven't given up yet, retail sales, excluding the volatile auto sector, edged ahead by 0.2 percent, besting the 0.1 percent gain that many economists had been forecasting.

And declines don't always mean bad news. In cheery news for maxxed-out consumers, gas prices fell last month by 4.2 percent, a second straight monthly decline, leaving consumers more money to spend somewhere else. Pump sales are now down 7.6 percent from revised May numbers.

Moving into the second half of the year, when deals and rebates are harder to come by, auto sales declined by 0.5 percent, to a seasonally adjusted level of $71.5 billion, down from a revised June figure of $71.9 billion.

In hopeful news for home fashions producers, sales in furniture and home furnishings stores climbed by 0.4 percent in July to a new level of $7.7 billion. It was a second straight moderate gain, helping home furnishings retailers recover from a 1.1 percent drop in May.

Sales in the building material and garden equipment channel, including such nameplates as The Home Depot and Lowe's, dipped slightly in July to a current reading of $24.51 billion from $24.53 billion the prior month.

General merchandise stores, including department stores, discounters, chains, warehouse clubs and superstores, got a big boost in July with a 0.9 percent increase in sales, with most of the action coming from off-pricers.

Sales in clothing stores improved last month, gaining 0.9 percent and rebounding from a 0.5 percent fall-off in June.

Whatever else happens in a jittery economy, no matter how many jobs are lost, one thing will always console consumers — food and drink. And again posting one of the strongest gains in the entire retail sector were restaurants and bars, where sales expanded by 1.0 percent, a fifth straight monthly gain.

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