Retail sales decline despite home growth

Don Hogsett, December 17, 2001

Washington — Hammered by a steep double-digit drop in auto sales, retail sales fell off by 4.1 percent in November, to $266.9 billion from $278.2 billion in October the month before, the steepest one-month drop on record, the Commerce Department reported.

And even excluding the dismal auto numbers, retail sales still declined by 0.5 percent as antsy consumers, anxious about mounting layoffs, reined in their spending and shied away from the malls.

But searching for a silver lining in an otherwise muted picture, home furnishings and furniture stores turned in a surprisingly strong performance during the month, advancing by 2.6 percent, to $7.7 billion from $7.5 billion in October.

And another home-related category, electronics and appliances, posted a strong 1.8 percent increase, to $7.5 billion from $7.4 billion the prior month.

And it was a good month as well for the nation's department stores, chains and discounters — all lumped together in the Commerce Department numbers — whose sales climbed higher by 1.5 percent, led by continued strength at mass merchants.

While home-related merchants turned out to be big winners in November, the overall retail outlook was dragged down by the deep slide in auto sales after dealers started to walk away from the zero-percent financing deals they had used to prop up the car market after September's terrorist attacks. Big-ticket auto sales add up to roughly a fourth of all retail sales.

Other decliners in November included gas stations and clothing stores, both down by 0.6 percent; building supplies dealers, off by 0.2 percent; and catch-all general merchandise stores category, off slightly by 0.1 percent.

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