Retail sales increase slightly in January

Numbers are important because retail sales can lead to hiring.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reported Tuesday that retail sales rose at a seasonally adjusted 0.4 percent last month, suggesting that Americans have stepped up spending. Many analysts, however, had predicted an even stronger surge.

Retail sales drive an estimated two-thirds of the U.S. economy, and robust consumer spending on retail items can lead to hiring.

Lora Miller, vice president of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, said Tuesday’s numbers signal a resurgence of spending in department stores, grocers and restaurants. But the size of the increase in sales suggests consumers “are a little bit skeptical about what the future holds, and about their home budgets,” Miller said. Some of the retail sales strength may be attributable to consumers using holiday gift cards, she said.

Serdar Durmusoglu, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Dayton, said consumers who recently found jobs after long bouts of unemployment may be paying off bills rather than buying big-ticket items. The uncertainty of tax season also may make consumers reluctant to spend, Durmusoglu said.

The Commerce Department reported that consumers spent more on electronics, home and garden supplies and sporting goods at department and general merchandise stores and at restaurants and bars. Spending on autos fell in January, even though automakers had previously reported higher sales last month.

The improving national outlook is being felt in Montgomery County, where sales tax revenue based on October 2011 sales and disbursed to the county by the state in January rose nearly $600,000 from a year earlier, to $5.4 million, a 12 percent increase. It was the 20th consecutive month of year-over-year increases for what is considered to be “the ultimate barometer of retail sales,” said John Parks, budget and financial planning manager for the Montgomery County Office of Management and Budget.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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