July retail sales a ‘mixed bag,’ up slightly on back-to-school buying

July retail sales a ‘mixed bag,’ up slightly on back-to-school buying

Retail sales rose a smidgen in July, growing 0.2% amid back-to-school shopping even as auto dealers and home goods merchants lagged.

The slight month-to-month uptick represents the fourth straight gain, according to the Commerce Department. Wall Street had expected a 0.3% increase.

Sales had advanced 0.6% in June, an upward revision. Compared with July 2012, the gauge last month is up 5.4%, according to the government.

But the National Retail Federation called the report a “mixed bag for retailers,” saying that the economy appears to be stuck in a rut.

“Fiscal and monetary policy uncertainties combined with stagnant economic and employment conditions continue to breed a volatile market with extreme swings in consumer spending,” Matthew Shay, the trade group’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Sales of clothing and accessories were up 0.9% from June and 5.3% from last July, according to the government. Sporting goods retailers also did well as parents and students began their back-to-school shopping earlier to take advantage of deals.

Consumers also upped their spending on eating, with sales at food and beverage stores getting a 0.8% boost and restaurants and other food service vendors reporting a 0.6% uptick.

But in a potentially worrisome sign for the housing recovery, building material and garden equipment dealers saw month-to-month sales slide 0.4%, though they boomed 9.8% from a year earlier.

Revenue in the furniture and home furnishings category dropped 1.4% from June. It’s also been slow going for electronics and appliance stores, whose sales fell 0.1%.

Though auto dealers saw a 13.3% surge in sales compared with last July, their sales fell 1.1% last month from June.

The core measure of retail sales, which strips out the volatile effects of auto and gas sales, rose 0.4% month to month.

A report from pollster Gallup on Tuesday showed that consumer confidence made its largest jump since mid-May last week and is trending higher in 2013 than it did last year.

Gallup pointed to improvements in job creation, home values and stock prices as likely contributors, but added that Americans continue to feel more negative than positive about the current economic conditions and the economy’s direction going forward.

Whether the those behind the Federal Reserve’s economic stimulus program read the retail sales report as a sign of impending stagnation or evidence of growth — however slow — remains to be seen.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has said that any reduction in the agency’s monthly purchases of Treasuries and mortgage debt — an attempt to boost borrowing — will depend on economic bellwethers.

In a note to clients Tuesday, Credit Suisse analysts wrote that “these data wouldn’t appear to increase the urgency for a September Fed taper.”

Twitter: @tiffhsulatimes