U.S. retail sales unexpectedly drop in May

According to the United States Census Bureau, advance estimates of US retail and food services sales for May 2017, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $473.81 billion, a decrease of 0.3% from April but up 3.8% from May 2016.

Auto sales were down 0.2% following a 0.5% rise in April, while department store sales fell 1%, marking their biggest drop since July a year ago, and sales at gasoline stations slumped 2.4%. Economists expected sales to rise slightly in May.

So should we just relax about last month's weak retail figures? Building material, garden equipment and supplies dealers sales were flat from April but up 10.8% from May 2016.

The drop in sales surprised economists, who had expected sales to inch up by 0.1 percent compared to the 0.3 percent increase originally reported for the previous month. Sales are up 3.9% in the first five months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. But not really. Inflation was actually negative last month, so in real terms the decline was only 0.1 percent.

With the shift in buying patterns away from malls and toward online retailers, the advance retail sales measure has become a less reliable leading indicator.

Most of the weakness in May stemmed from a 2.4% plunge in sales at gasoline retailers, marking the biggest decline in more than a year.

If autos and gas are set aside, retail sales were unchanged in May, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. They declined 1% in May, the worst performance in almost a year.

At gasoline stations, sales dropped 2.4 percent, greatly reflecting lower prices.

  • Zachary Reyes