US ecommerce sales grow 8.5% in February, outpacing overall retail

US retail sales were up 5.4%, but a slowdown in some discretionary categories is emerging.


US retail sales couldn’t keep the post-holiday bounce of January going into February.

The US Commerce Department reported the following data on US retail sales totals for February 2023:

On a monthly basis, sales declined by 0.4% from January, totaling $697.9 billion.

On an annual basis, sales increased 5.4%. That’s below the January annualized growth of 6.4%.

Core retail sales, which exclude foodservice and auto-related items, grew 6.5% year-over-year and 0.5% month-over-month, according to the National Retail Federation.

Nonstore retailers, which includes ecommerce, outpaced overall sales to grow at 1.6%. On an annual basis, sales in this category grew 8.5% over February 2022.

January totals were revised upward to growth of 3.2% month-over-month. Previously, the Department said growth was 3%.

In part, the month-to-month fluctuations are a result of seasonality, said NRF Economist Jack Kleinhenz. Despite the presence of Valentine's Day, February tends to be one of the slowest months in retail as the holiday bounce gives way to a winter lull.

“Sales are higher than last year and that’s due in large part to the strong labor market, which means more income and spending," said Kleinhenz, in a statement. "We are seeing a decent trend for retail sales growth built on the upward revisions to December and January sales. Nonetheless, seasonal adjustment factors the government is applying to the monthly data to account for irregular post-pandemic spending patterns make it difficult to accurately measure the strength of the consumer.”

Still, the data offers some signals that behavioral shifts are emerging. The results offer a mixed picture at a time when stubborn inflation is continuing to drag on the economy.

“Consumers continue to dig deep to fund consumption and are showing remarkable resilience despite various unfavorable economic factors,” said GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders. “That said, the devil is in the detail and there are definite signs that shoppers are gradually changing behaviors to cope with higher inflation and numerous pressures on their household budgets.”

With food and rent prices elevated on top of rising interest rates, the results on a category level offer signs that consumers are cutting back on some discretionary spending in goods.

Stores that are destinations for bigger ticket purchases saw declines. Furniture stores were down 2.5% for the month and grew a slight 0.1% for the year. Electronics and appliance stores were down 2.8% for the year, and declined 0.3% for the month.

But not all discretionary categories are suffering. Clothing stores declined 0.8% for the month, but posted 4.3% growth for the year. Sporting goods and hobby stores followed a similar pattern, declining 0.5% for the month, but growing 3.9% for the year.

The categories that fit into more essential, every day needs continue to see the most growth. Grocery stores grew 0.6% on the month, and 5.6% for the year. Health and personal care was up 0.9% for the month, and 8% for the year. The latter reflects the continuing strength of beauty, which is often seen by consumers as an affordable luxury during tougher economic times.

If the predictions from retailers and economists of a slowdown in consumer spending continue to pan out this year, look for this dichotomy to continue.

The bright spot in the report comes from the category that includes ecommerce. While the growth of ecommerce slowed in 2022, the report offers confirmation that steady continued spending can keep it on an upward trajectory. Ecommerce sales tend toward the discretionary, so a sign that consumers are seeking out online channels even as they become more cautious is a welcome one.

Wholesale inflation inches down, eggs drop

A forward-looking measure of inflation showed signs of cooling in February.

The Producer Price Index, which offers data on the price of goods before they reach retail, showed the following for February 2023:

  • Prices declined 0.1% overall on a monthly basis.
  • On an annual basis, prices increased 4.6% from February 2022. That’s down notably from 5.7% in January.
  • Prices for goods declined 0.2%, driving the decrease.

While the PPI is a one-to-one predictor of the future inflation rate, it shows signs in the pipeline that prices may be coming down. Notably, one of the most high-profile products to see inflation is finally getting some relief. Egg prices dropped 36.1%. This accounted for 80% of the decline in goods for the month, and offers a sign that price drops could be on the way to grocery store shelves soon.

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