WASHINGTON -U.S. retailers rang up their largest increase in sales in more than a year during January, rebounding strongly after a six-month string of sharp declines, the Commerce Department reported yesterday.
Retail sales rose 1 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis last month, marking the first increase since June and the largest percentage increase since November 2007. The gain was unexpected, with economists surveyed by MarketWatch looking for a decline of 0.4 percent.
But economists tempered their enthusiasm over the better-than-expected results, believing that the improvement might have been largely the result of problems seasonally adjusting the data after an especially horrid holiday sales season.
"We absolutely are not buying into this result," wrote Stephen Stanley, chief economist for RBS Greenwich Capital. "We believe that consumer spending is still weak, and we assume these data are either fluky or high-frequency noise that will be washed out by weakness in surrounding months."
"Regardless of the reason sales increased, the improvement should help remind folks that things do not fall forever," wrote Mark Vitner, an economist for Wachovia. "Retail sales and the economy will eventually recover. This figure, however, does not mark the start of that recovery."
Sales fell by 3 percent in December and by 2.4 percent in November, each revised down by three-tenths of a percentage point.
The figures are adjusted for seasonal factors but not for price changes. The data can be quite volatile.
Retail sales are down 9.7 percent in the past year, the government's data showed.
Rising gasoline prices boosted sales at gas stations by 2.6 percent but had only a small impact on the dollar volume of sales in January. Total retail sales excluding gasoline rose 0.9 percent.
The bullish government report was at odds with recent reports from retail chain stores and from automakers, which both reported weak sales for January. The government data, by contrast, showed most retail sectors enjoying increased sales in January compared with December.
Retail sales account for about half of consumer spending, which has fallen sharply in the past two quarters.