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Retail sales ease in July

Downturn of 0.1% comes as government stimulus payments end. Sales up 0.4% excluding autos.

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By Lara Moscrip, CNNMoney.com contributing writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Retail sales dropped slightly in July, meeting economists' expectations that spending would decline following the end of government stimulus payments.

Retail sales were $384.6 billion in July, matching the forecast of a 0.1% drop from economists surveyed by Briefing.com. Sales growth numbers for June were upwardly revised to 0.3%, for total sales of $385.1 million.

Sales excluding autos rose 0.4%, slightly below the 0.5% economists' consensus, and down from an upwardly revised 0.9% gain in June.

Of all the major retail categories, auto sales saw the biggest decline, dropping 2.4% in July. That comes after a 2.1% dip in June, and decreases of 10.5% over the past year.

Sales at gasoline stations were up 0.8% from June. Over the past year, that figure has increased 24.6% as the price of oil has simultaneously increased by nearly 60%.

Stimulus checks have been used to pay for more expensive gas and food, and now consumers are changing spending habits to cope with a weak job market and declining home values, according to Michael Strauss, chief economist of Commonfund Asset Management Company.

"You'll see more bargain shopping at the warehouse stores. You'll see shopping downstream from where people would have shopped otherwise," Strauss said.

General merchandise retailers - who consider the back-to-school shopping season second only to winter holidays - saw a 0.3% growth in sales. But that's half of the 0.6% increase in sales from June.

Furniture stores, electronics and appliance stores and nonstore retailers - such as e-retailers, vending machines and store catalogs - made gains in July. Nonstore retailers posted the fastest growth in sales at 1.1%

The growth in nonstore retailers may be due to higher gas prices, according to Strauss.

"We are seeing the effects of higher energy costs in retail data through more buying via the Internet," Strauss said.

Sporting goods stores saw purchases down by 0.2%, after June's 0.2% increase in sales. Food services also lagged 0.2% in July, after slight gains of 0.3% in June.

The survey has a plus or minus 0.5% margin of error.  To top of page

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