MARQUETTE - U.S. consumers stepped up their spending on retail goods in September, a hopeful sign for the sluggish economy.
They spent more on autos, clothing and furniture last month to boost retail sales 1.1 percent, the Commerce Department said Friday. It was the largest gain in seven months.
Auto sales rose 3.6 percent to drive the overall September increase. Still, excluding that category, sales increased a solid 0.6 percent.
In this Sept. 29 file photo, a woman with a child loads purchases from a Target store into her car in Culver City, Calif. U.S. consumers stepped up their spending on retail goods in September, a hopeful sign for the sluggish economy. (AP photo)
"September was a great month," said Garry Toleffson, general sales manager at Public Service Garage in Marquette. "August was a great month, July was a little dip. Overall, this year is a lot better than last year."
The government also revised the August figures up to show a 0.3 percent increase after initially reporting no gain. Stocks rose after the release of the report, which is the government's first look at consumer spending each month. The Dow Jones industrial average increased more than 120 points, or 1 percent. Broader indexes also rose more than 1 percent.
A separate Commerce report showed businesses added to their stockpiles for a 20th consecutive month in August while sales rose for a third straight month. The increase suggests businesses were confident enough in the economy to keep stocking their shelves.
Stronger consumer spending could help tamp down concerns that the economy is at risk of a recession. Consumer spending is closely watched because it accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.
The increase "shows that households are not completely down and out," said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economists for Capital Economics. Dales said the data correspond with an annual growth rate of 2 percent for consumer spending growth in the July-September quarter.
Kevin Higgins, store manager at Target in Marquette Township, said September was a very good month, continuing in progression from sales in August.
"It's been steadily improving," Higgins said.
Higgins said the clothing sales at his store have remained relatively constant, but pharmacy has increased, with many new customers to the outlet.
But Dales cautioned that weak hiring will likely prevent consumers from spending at this rate on a month-to-month basis.
"Sales growth is unlikely to remain this strong," he said. "So although a recession has become less likely, households still can't be relied on to drag the US economy out of its continued malaise."
The September gains were broad-based:
- Department stores sales increased 1.1 percent, a big turnaround from August when sales had fallen 0.5 percent. The drop was blamed in part on Hurricane Irene disrupting shopping along the East Coast.
- A larger category of general merchandise stores, which includes big-chain retailers including Wal-Mart and Target, showed a 0.7 percent rise last month after no gain in August.
- Specialty clothing stores sales rose 1.3 percent, after a 0.4 percent August drop.
- Sales were up 1.1 percent at furniture stores but edged down a slight 0.1 percent at hardware stores. That surprised economists, who expected more traffic from people seeking to repair damage from the hurricane.
- Gas station sales rose 1.2 percent.
The overall economy grew at an annual rate of 0.9 percent in the first six months of the year. That was the weakest growth since the recession ended in June 2009.
High unemployment and steep gasoline prices forced many consumers to cut back on spending this spring. Without more jobs or higher pay increases, they are likely to keep spending cautiously.
In September, the economy generated 103,000 net jobs. That's enough to calm recession fears, but it is far from what is needed to lower the unemployment rate, which stayed at 9.1 percent for the third straight month.
Employers have added an average of only 72,000 jobs in the past five months. That's far below the 125,000 per month needed to keep up with population growth. And it's down from an average of 180,000 in the first four months of this year.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.