January: A shopping affair to remember
Economists credit 'favorable' weather for heating up retail sales last month. So does that mean February's winter blast will have the opposite effect on sales?
By Parija Bhatnagar, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - If a record-warm January inspired winter-weary consumers to shop till they dropped last month, then Old Man Winter's vengeful return this month probably doesn't bode too well for retailers.

In fact, the consensus among economists is that February's retail sales will cool significantly from their sharp surge last month.

But even if that does happen, industry watchers say it's no reason to hit the panic button about the next few months -- yet.

"We're assuming January was all about the weather," said Scott Hoyt, director of consumer economics with Economy.com.

"Consumers were much more inclined to go out and shop because it was so warm," he said. "The proof's in the big increase in gas station sales despite the uptick in gasoline prices. This shows people were going out much more last month.

"The surge in building supplies is definitely tied to favorable weather as were increases in restaurant, furniture and department store sales," Hoyt added.

Given that January is typically a fairly slow sales period -- with consumers recovering from holiday shopping mania -- Tuesday's much stronger-than-expected retail sales report was a welcome surprise for retailers.

Adding to the cheer, Hoyt said he doesn't think the January numbers will be hit with any downward revisions next month. "These numbers should hold," he said.

Should any revision occur in the government's data, "the bigger risk is that we'll probably see the strong gains revised lower in February," he said.

Shoppers stuffed their bags last month

While unseasonably warm weather helped spur sales of spring clothing and other products, observers said holiday gift card redemptions and heavy clearance sales also boosted retail sales across-the-board.

The Commerce Department said January retail sales jumped 2.3 percent, trumping analysts' expectations, versus a revised 0.4 percent gain the previous month. It was the biggest gain in total sales since May 2004.

December sales were initially reported to have increased 0.7 percent.

Excluding volatile automobile sales, retail sales also blew past forecasts, rising a robust 2.2 percent from a much weaker 0.2 percent in December.

Economists, on average, expected sales to rise 0.9 percent and sales excluding autos to rise 0.8 percent, according to Briefing.com.

Brian Bethune, U.S. economist with Global Insight, cited two factors that he believes factored into retail sales "soaring off the ski jump."

"We just had the warmest January in over a hundred years. This moved up sales of spring items that would normally occur later in the season," Bethune said.

"People also delayed their holiday shopping in a way that hasn't been seen in the past," he added. "It's inexplicable why December was a tame month, but the restraint that consumers showed in December was certainly missing in January."

Among the best-performing categories last month included clothing sales, which jumped 4.2 percent. Electronics sales rose 2 percent and furniture sales rose a strong 3.7 percent.

Department stores registered a 1.6 percent gain last month, while sporting goods, book and music stores together logged a 1.5 percent sales increase in December.

Auto sales also increased, rising 2.9 percent in January. Sales at gasoline stations surged 5.5 percent.

Will the good vibes last?

Bethune said the shopping enthusiasm reflects consumer optimism about the overall state of the economy.

Consumer spending is a closely-watched gauge of the health of the economy because it fuels about two-thirds of the world's largest economy.

"January employment numbers were strong. Warm weather did induce a high rate of job creation last month," he said.

Moreover, the additional wages and salaries people received at the end of the year in the form of bonuses and incentives amounted to "extra" spending income for consumers.

Looking ahead, Bethune said he's not too concerned if February does show a cooldown in consumer spending. "With this kind of gain, the first quarter is already a slam dunk even if February is negative or flat," he said.

Economy.com's Hoyt agreed with Bethune. "A lot of the weakness in consumer spending in the fourth quarter was because auto sales were weak in December after surging in the third quarter," he said. "It's important to look beyond auto sales. At least for the first quarter, it's not going to take much for consumer spending to look good."

Hoyt expects first-quarter GDP to rise at a 4.7 percent annual rate, but is now leaving room for some adjustment to the upside.

Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research with the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), initially estimated first-quarter real GDP to rise 4.8 percent. He, too, expects the final number could be boosted to above 5 percent for the period.

"The arithmetic is on the side of a strong first quarter," he said. But beyond the first quarter is anyone's guess.

Said Niemira, "January's [retail] numbers could have real consequences on the Federal Reserve's policy on interest rates. This is a Fed that's more dependent on incoming information. It's likely to continue to raise rates on the back of strength in economic data."

Under the leadership of former chairman Alan Greenspan, the central bank has raised interest rates 14 consecutive times since June 2004 and indicated it may raise rates further under new chairman Ben Bernanke.

The implication for consumers is tied to the impact that rising rates have on the housing market. When interest rates were falling and home prices were rising, Americans quickly refinanced their mortgages at the lower rates, effectively turning their homes into piggy banks and tapping into them for cash.

Now, with interest rates rising and home prices softening, refi activity has slowed, raising fears that a pullback in consumer spending could be just around the corner.

"Housing activity has slowed but it hasn't fallen off the cliff," said Niemira. "Typically there's a 6-month lag time between any fluctuation in housing activity and consumer spending. We think the housing market is the single most important indicator to watch to see what could happen with consumer spending in the future."


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