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U.S. retail sales slow ahead of holidays, but remain resilient

Shoppers are shown at a mall in Santa Clara, Calif., in this undated photo.  (Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg)
By Augusta Saraiva Bloomberg

U.S. retail sales slowed in October and prior months were revised higher, suggesting some resiliency going into the holiday season.

The value of retail purchases, unadjusted for inflation, decreased 0.1%, Commerce Department data showed Wednesday. Excluding autos and gasoline, sales advanced 0.1%.

Seven out of 13 categories posted declines, led by furniture and car dealers.

Gasoline sales weren’t as big of a drag on the headline number as feared considering how much pump prices fell in the month.

Meanwhile, outlays increased at personal-care and grocery stores.

So-called control group sales – which are used to calculate gross domestic product and exclude food services, auto dealers, building materials stores and gasoline stations – rose 0.2%, suggesting the fourth quarter is off to a decent start, following a surge in the prior period.

The resiliency of the U.S. consumer – the main engine of the economy – has continuously surprised economists, leading many to rethink their recession forecasts.

But it’s unclear how much of that can be sustained given a cooling job market, lingering inflation and higher borrowing costs.

“While consumers continue to face hurdles from higher borrowing costs, tighter credit conditions and elevated prices, a still-strong labor market, a positive trend in incomes and an easing in price pressures should keep spending and growth positive for now,” Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said in a note.

Data out this week showed U.S. consumer and producer prices eased in October, adding to evidence of abating inflationary pressures across the economy.

The Federal Reserve is looking for a slowdown in spending to ensure that inflation is on a sustainable downward trend.

What’s more, so-called core goods prices, which exclude food and energy commodities, fell for a fifth month in October.

The decline in retail sales – which aren’t adjusted for inflation – may reflect lower prices rather than fewer transactions.

Wednesday’s report showed purchases made at restaurants and bars – the only service-sector category in the report – climbed 0.3% last month.

Receipts at grocery stores were up 0.7%.

Looking ahead, higher credit-card rates, waning savings and the resumption of student-loan payments could all limit spending going into the holiday season.The National Retail Federation sees those headwinds and others hindering sales, while big-name companies including Home Depot Inc. and Under Armour Inc. are already warning of weaker demand.

Target Corp. sales dropped for a second consecutive quarter as customers curbed spending on some discretionary categories, but Chief Executive Officer Brian Cornell said Wednesday that the big-box retailer sees “great resiliency” in the face of mounting challenges for consumers.

Walmart Inc. will report earnings Thursday.

The retail figures largely reflect spending on merchandise, limiting the takeaways of this particular report.

Real spending on both goods and services for October are scheduled for later this month.