US retail sales rose a modest 0.3pct in October

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People shop at a locally owned business in the Coconut Grove neighborhood in Miami on Nov. 6, 2019. (Photo: AP)

Americans stepped up their shopping last month, spending more online and buying more cars, evidence that consumers can still drive the economy’s growth.

Still, the details of the report were weaker than expected, economists said, and several analysts reduced their forecasts for fourth-quarter growth. JPMorgan economists lowered their forecast to an annual rate of just 1.25% from 1.75%.

The Commerce Department said Friday that retail sales rose 0.3% in October, rebounding from a 0.3% drop the previous month. Sales increased 3.1% compared with a year ago.

The figures suggest higher tariffs on many consumer products imported from China, imposed in early September, as well as broader trade uncertainty, did not completely hold Americans back from spending. Consumers remain mostly optimistic and willing to make large purchases, such as autos, even as businesses cut back on investment and exports stall.

The report also indicates that shopping during the upcoming Christmas holiday could be solid. The unemployment rate is near a 50-year low and wages are rising, encouraging more shopping.

But there were several weak spots in the report. Spending at restaurants and bars fell 0.3%, the biggest drop in almost a year. That category is seen as highly discretionary and a decent sign of consumers’ health. And clothing stores reported a sharp 1% drop in sales, while furniture, home and garden, and electronics and appliances stores all reported declines.

“Consumers are neither fearful nor exuberant,” but “steady as she goes,” said Julia Coronado, an economist at MacroPolicy Perspectives.

Diane Swonk, chief economist for Grant Thornton, said that higher tariffs on furniture may have held back sales. With home purchases rising in the past year, furniture sales could be expected to have moved higher. But they fell a sharp 0.9% last month.

E-commerce is still gaining steam. Sales in a category that mostly includes online and catalog shopping jumped 0.9% in October and 14.3% from a year earlier.

Sales at auto dealers also rose, increasing 0.5%. Gas stations reported a 1.1% jump in sales, which mostly reflected higher prices. Grocery stores and general merchandise retailers, which includes stores such as Walmart and Target, also said that sales increased.

Walmart reported a strong sales increase in its third quarter Thursday, boosted by a huge 41% increase in online sales.

The economy has slowed since earlier this year, with growth clocking in at just 1.9% in the July-September quarter, down from 3.1% in the first three months of the year. Most analysts partly blame the weakening on uncertainty surrounding the US-China trade war, which has caused many companies to delay plans to invest and expand. That’s left consumers as the principal drivers of growth.

So far, Americans have maintained their spending, quelling fears of a recession, which flared as recently as two months ago when trade tensions worsened.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Thursday that the US economy is a “star performer” and expressed confidence that it would keep expanding at a moderate pace, with few signs of bubbles or other weaknesses appearing.

Signs that the US and China may soon reach the first stage of a trade deal has also helped soothe financial markets, pushing up stock prices and bond yields.