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Spike in Gas Prices Drives Retail Spending Rise in August

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Americans stepped up retail spending modestly from July to August as the price of gasoline jumped. (AP File Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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NEW YORK — Americans stepped up retail spending modestly from July to August as the price of gasoline jumped, cutting into budgets as many families send their kids off to school.

Retail sales rose 0.6% in August, compared with a revised 0.5% increase in July, according to a report issued by the Commerce Department on Thursday.

The big rise in gas prices accounted for more than half of the inflation increase recorded in August, the U.S. reported Wednesday.

Excluding gas, retail sales were just up 0.2% for August, according to the report.

Sales at gas stations rose a robust 5.2%, while furniture and home furnishings stores saw a 1% drop in sales. Clothing and accessories stores had a 0.9% gain, likely helped by back-to-school spending. Restaurants saw a 0.3% increase. Grocery stores had a 0.4% sales increase. Online sales were unchanged in August, perhaps hurt by robust spending during the Amazon Prime day sales event in July.

The uptick in retail sales reflects the economy’s resiliency despite a still tough economic environment. Yet spending has been volatile this year after surging nearly 3% in January. Sales tumbled in February and March before recovering in the spring and summer.

The most recent quarterly financial reports from retailers like Macy’s and Target showed that Americans remain cautious as higher interest rates make cars, homes or using credit cards more expensive.

Inflation jumped last month largely because of the spike in gas prices but other costs rose more slowly, suggesting price pressures are easing at a gradual pace.

In a set of conflicting data released Wednesday, the Labor Department said the consumer price index r ose 3.7% in August fr om a year ago, up from a 3.2% annual pace in July. Yet excluding the volatile food and energy categories, so-called core prices rose 4.3%, a step back from 4.7% in July and the smallest gain in nearly two years. That is still far from the Federal Reserve’s 2% target.

America’s employers added 187,000 jobs in August, evidence of a slowing but still-resilient labor market despite the high interest rates the Federal Reserve has imposed.

In the latest sign that companies are not feeling pressure to increase wages, Walmart is cutting starting pay for some of its new hourly workers like those picking online orders at its stores. The change, which became effective in July, will create consistency in starting hourly pay across individual stores, said spokeswoman Anne Hatfield, which the company says will lead to improved staffing and customer service.

Given this uncertainty, many retailers are being cautious about ordering products from toys to clothing for the holiday shopping season.

They’re also hoping to lure shoppers in with new partnerships that will draw them into the store. Target, hurt by cautious consumer and a backlash to its Pride merchandise, announced earlier this week an exclusive deal with jewelry brand Kendra Scott. Prices for the more than 200 necklaces, rings and accessories will range from $15 to $60, and the collection will be available in select stores next month.

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