Americans backed off from holiday spending in January, but retail sales rose for a third month in a row compared with a year earlier, largely because of gas price hikes, according to figures released Wednesday by a key data service.
Including goods from food to clothing to gasoline — but excluding cars — U.S. retail sales rose 3.6 percent from January 2009, according to MasterCard Advisor's SpendingPulse, which offer an estimate of spending in all forms including cash.
That increase followed a 4.8 percent gain in December and a 2.1 percent gain in November, according to SpendingPulse.
Excluding both gas and auto sales, retail sales rose 0.3 percent in January, 2.1 percent in December and 0.2 percent in November compared with a year earlier. The year-over-year figures are not seasonally adjusted.
"It is a modest pace of spending," said Kamalesh Rao, director of economic research for MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse. "Consumers are not going back to their caves, but they are not spending aggressively either."
With consumer spending — including major items like health care — accounting for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, according to the government, economists watch it closely for clues on what lies ahead.
SpendingPulse's month-to-month figures — which are seasonally adjusted and include gasoline but exclude autos — show January's sales rising 2.8 percent from December's, which fell 1.9 percent from November's. November's sales rose 1.1 percent from October.
SpendingPulse released its data ahead of government figures coming Thursday and earnings reports due later in the month from major retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. that also will offer insight into consumers' behavior.
Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters predict the U.S. Department of Commerce's sales index due Thursday, which excludes autos but includes gasoline, will be up just 0.5 percent in January from December.
Yet another forecaster, Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody's Economy, estimates January sales rose 3.7 percent compared with a year earlier and 0.3 percent from December. He excludes autos from his estimates.
SpendingPulse's Rao says its figures offer a more nuanced snapshot than the government's because MasterCard uses purchase data from millions of shoppers.
Rao said shoppers generally pulled back on discretionary items like electronics, but did buy clothes, which was borne out in January figures released last week by apparel chains.
SpendingPulse estimates that women's clothing sales rose 2.7 percent and men's 2.5 percent in January 2010 from January 2009. In contrast, electronics sales rose only 0.4 percent and online sales growth slowed to 15.1 percent from 17.7 percent in December 2009.
According to a tally from the International Council of Shopping Centers, selected retailers' sales in stores open at least a year rose 3.0 percent in January from a year earlier. The figure was well above ICSC's forecast for a 1 percent gain.
ICSC's data includes primarily clothing sellers; it excludes autos, gasoline and building materials. After Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, stopped participating last year, the monthly figures released by individual stores became a better gauge of discretionary spending than the economy overall.
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