March Retail Sales Edged Up by 0.1%

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON - Retail sales, held back by sluggish business at car dealerships and department stores, edged up a slim 0.1 percent in March after posting a sharp decline during the previous month, the government reported Thursday.

The Commerce Department said sales rose to a seasonally adjusted $139.42 billion last month after falling 0.6 percent in February and jumping 0.6 percent in January. The figures are not adjusted to exclude the effects of rising prices.

For the third straight month, overall sales in March were held down by a decline in spending on autos, which account for almost one-fourth of the retail total. Car sales were down 0.1 percent in March after declining 2.5 percent in February and 1.9 percent in January.

It was the first time auto sales have declined for three straight months since July through September 1984, when the decreases were more pronounced.

Carmakers in recent weeks have launched a new round of incentive programs in hopes of luring customers back to showrooms during the prime spring selling season despite higher interest rates for loans.

Excluding the automotive category, retail sales last month still were up just 0.2 percent after holding virtually even during February and rising 1.4 percent in January.

Retail spending accounts for about one-third of overall economic activity and is closely watched as a measure of the economy's health. Many analysts are expecting an economic slowdown this year in response to an ongoing campaign by the Federal Reserve Board to push up interest rates and thus dampen demand and restrain inflation. …