Retail sales sank 0.4% in February, the biggest decline in almost a year, as business slowed at car dealerships, the government reported today.
The Commerce Department said sales fell to $138.2 billion last month after rising a strong 0.7% in January, when business was aided by unusually mild winter weather.
The overall rate was held back by a 1.7% drop in automotive sales last month, the second straight decline in that category. Car sales had dropped 1.7% in January and been virtually unchanged in December.
Excluding autos, which account for almost one-fourth of the retail total, sales edged down 0.1% last month after rising a robust 1.4% in January.
The size of February’s overall drop in sales was last matched by a 0.4% drop in April, 1988. The last time there was a bigger drop was in October, 1987, when sales plunged 0.9%.
In the key category of department and other general merchandise stores, sales fell 0.8% to $10.3 billion last month, following a 2% rise in January.
In a separate report earlier this month, the nation’s largest retailers had reported strong sales for February from year-earlier levels, spurred by renewed demand for women’s apparel and other consumer and household goods.
Clothing stores did report a 0.5% increase in February sales from the previous month.
Among the categories to post big declines in retail sales last month were building and hardware stores, down 2.5%, and furniture and home furnishing stores, down 0.7%.
The strongest sales were recorded in the category of gasoline stations, where business was up 0.8%.
Sales of durable goods--"big ticket” items expected to last at least three years--plunged 1.3% last month after a 0.3% decline in January. The drops were partly a reflection of the slide in auto sales.
Sales of non-durable goods edged up 0.1% last month after rising 1.4% in January.
In other categories, retail sales rose 0.1% at grocery and other food stores and at restaurants and bars; and 0.3% at drugstores.