skip navigation

By the Numbers

Featuring brief segments of economic analysis from our senior economist Michael Bazdarich, PhD.

The economic analysis we previously featured in By the Numbers is now available on the Western Asset Blog. This page will no longer be updated.

March Retail Sales: It Might as Well Not Be Spring

Retail sales rose in March, but just barely, following three straight declines. Headline sales were up 0.9% in March, and February sales levels were revised up by 0.1%. However, for the more closely watched control group, which excludes cars, gasoline, and building materials, sales were up only 0.4%, and February sales levels were revised downward by 0.2%. On net, underlying sales levels in March were up only 0.2% from where we thought they were in February based on initial reports.

The accompanying chart tells the story. After an apparent pick-up last fall, retail sales have come back to ground over the last four months. Through current March data, they are only slightly above the lackluster trend path that has held since late-2011.

A month ago, we acknowledged possible weather effects holding down February sales, but we argued that the main story was a “three steps forward, two (three?) steps backward” process, whereby the economy couldn’t maintain any momentum toward a faster growth path. Today’s data affirm that assessment. If the severe winter weather indeed held down sales in February, there was little or no “payback” of those effects in March alongside the spring thaw. There is more than just the weather underlying these data.

Within individual store types, both grocery and restaurant sales were especially soft, after restaurants had seen strong sales growth in the fall. Car sales reversed their February declines, but no more than that. Sales at apparel and department stores registered slight gains that failed to fully reverse declines in January and February. Sales at electronics and appliance stores dropped for the sixth straight month, while sales at furniture, books/sporting goods, and building materials stores were at best flat on net over the last four months.

The consumer isn’t dying, but neither has he perked up any recently.

Retail Sales Trends
Retail Sales Trends Chart
Source: Census Bureau. As of 31 Mar 15. “Control” retail sales is total sales less vehicle dealers, service stations and building material stores

Michael Bazdarich

Product Specialist/Economist

Mike brings more than 43 years of experience to his position. "By the Numbers" will address economic data releases that are pertinent to a broad range of investors.

Prior to joining the Firm in 2005, Mike ran his own consulting firm, MB Economics. He earned his PhD in Economics at the University of Chicago.

Sign up to receive email updates as new reports are released.

© Western Asset Management Company, LLC 2020. This publication is the property of Western Asset and is intended for the sole use of its clients, consultants, and other intended recipients. It should not be forwarded to any other person. Contents herein should be treated as confidential and proprietary information. This material may not be reproduced or used in any form or medium without express written permission.
Past results are not indicative of future investment results. This publication is for informational purposes only and reflects the current opinions of Western Asset. Information contained herein is believed to be accurate, but cannot be guaranteed. Opinions represented are not intended as an offer or solicitation with respect to the purchase or sale of any security and are subject to change without notice. Statements in this material should not be considered investment advice. Employees and/or clients of Western Asset may have a position in the securities mentioned. This publication has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on this information, you should consider its appropriateness having regard to your objectives, financial situation or needs. It is your responsibility to be aware of and observe the applicable laws and regulations of your country of residence.
Western Asset Management Company Distribuidora de Títulos e Valores Mobiliários Limitada is authorised and regulated by Comissão de Valores Mobiliários and Banco Central do Brasil. Western Asset Management Company Pty Ltd ABN 41 117 767 923 is the holder of the Australian Financial Services Licence 303160. Western Asset Management Company Pte. Ltd. Co. Reg. No. 200007692R is a holder of a Capital Markets Services Licence for fund management and regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Western Asset Management Company Ltd is a registered Financial Instruments Business Operator and regulated by the Financial Services Agency of Japan. Western Asset Management Company Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”). This communication is intended for distribution to Professional Clients only if deemed to be a financial promotion in the UK and EEA countries as defined by the FCA or MiFID II rules.