NEW YORK — Americans showed their steadfast resilience and kept spending online, at restaurants and other outlets in September even as they grappled with higher prices, rising interest rates and a host of other headwinds piling up.
Retail Sales Overview
Retail sales rose 0.7% in September, more than twice what economists had expected, and close to a revised 0.8% bump in August, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday. Retail sales in August were inflated after gasoline prices spiked, however. That was not the case in September when gas prices rose more slowly.
A closely watched category of retail sales that excludes auto dealers, gas stations and building materials and feeds into the gross domestic product jumped 0.6% last month compared to the prior month.
Tuesday’s sales figures aren’t adjusted for inflation, but the cost of goods barely rose last month, so the increased spending isn’t a reflection of higher prices. Prices for durable goods, such as those sold by appliance and electronics stores, actually fell last month.
The government’s monthly retail sales report offers only a partial look at consumer spending; it doesn’t include many services, including health care, travel and hotel lodging. But it does cover spending at restaurants, which had a solid 0.9% increase. Spending online rose 1.1% last month, according to the report. Sales at general merchandise stores rose 0.4%.
Sales at home furnishings and furniture stores were flat, while electronics stores and outlets that sell building materials saw declines reflecting a difficult housing market.
Impact on Economy
The retail sales report, which reflects the sixth consecutive monthly gain, reinforces the fact that American consumers, as a whole, are showing no signs of pulling back on their spending, which powers most of the economy. That spending comes despite attempts by the Federal Reserve to cool spending and hiring. That’s good news heading into the critical holiday shopping season. But the robust sales report also means that the Fed officials could leave the door open for additional rate hikes. That means that shoppers could face higher interest rates for awhile.
“If the cost-of-living crisis has hit consumer confidence, you wouldn’t know it judging by a second month of strong retail sales with the consumer buying everything that wasn’t nailed down,” said Christopher S. Rupkey, chief economist at FWDBONDS LLC, a financial markets research company. “Fed officials have another rate hike this year up on their forecast board, and they will need to use it, if the economic data continues to surprise economists on the upside.”
Still, questions remain whether shoppers will finally buckle under more bad news piling up from federal budget wrangling, the resumption of student loan repayments, and new global tensions tied to the Oct. 7 surprise attack by Hamas in Israel. The moratorium on student loan payments lifted Oct. 1. Analysts say that shoppers could also become rattled if the Israel-Hamas war is not contained.
Moreover, the relentless spending by shoppers also comes at a cost to their household finances.
“We have repeatedly under-estimated the U.S. consumer, “ said Tim Quinlan, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Economics. ”But in pulling off this spending spree, consumers have dented their household finances, a theme that is evident not only in the diminished savings, but also the trend rise in credit card delinquencies.”
Healthy consumer spending is expected to lift the economy’s growth rate to about 3.5% or possibly even higher in the July-September quarter. September’s strong sales also suggests the economy may not slow as much in the final three months of the year as previously expected, analysts said.
The retail sales report came as businesses across the U.S. economy ramped up hiring in September, defying surging interest rates, and the ongoing threat of a government shutdown. The strength of hiring has surprised economists inside and outside of the Fed.
Consumer prices rose 0.4% from August to September, below the previous month’s 0.6% pace. The report from the Labor Department also showed that year-over-year inflation was flat last month from a 3.7% rise in August.
Holiday Shopping Season
Meanwhile, retailers are pulling out discounts and other incentives to get shoppers to open their wallets for the holiday season as they worry about shoppers’ finances. Best Buy, the nation’s largest consumer electronics retailer, unveiled a new experience that gives shoppers a chance to access some of the biggest deals and cool gadgets of the holiday season. The items, which kicked off late last month, are only available in limited quantities and exclusively through the Best Buy app.