US Retail Sales Jumped 1.6% in March, Propelled by Clothing and Accessories Stores

U.S. retail sales recorded their strongest gain in 18 months in March as consumers kicked off their spring shopping at clothing and accessories stores.

According to the Commerce Department, retail sales surged a seasonally adjusted 1.6% from February, recovering after several months of weaker-than-expected results. Sales for the month reached $514.1 billion, 3.6% above March 2018, putting the industry on track to meet the National Retail Federation’s forecast of 3.8 and 4.4 percent growth during 2019 if spending continues to pick up in the latter three quarters of the year.

“March’s numbers are very encouraging and set the stage for improved expectations for the economy in the coming months, especially since the first quarter is typically weak,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. “These numbers boost first-quarter performance and suggest a strong consumer. It is clear that underlying consumer fundamentals including job and wage growth and healthy household balance sheets continue to support spending.”

After three months of declines, clothing and accessories stores posted the biggest gains of any retail category excluding auto and gas, soaring 2% in March to $22.75 million, an increase of 1.5% year-over-year. Department store sales were flat for the month, but down 3.7% since 2018, reflecting the sector’s ongoing challenges with falling traffic and tough online competition.

The only type of retailer to see a decline during the month was sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores, which fell 0.3% and was down 10.8% year-over-year.

Both Easter and Passover fall late in April this year, so any holiday spending bump will likely not be recorded until next month’s release.

Retailers have announced 5,994 store closures and 2,647 store openings so far this year, compared with 5,864 closures and 3,239 openings for all of 2018, according to retail and technology advisory firm Coresight Research.

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