O.C. Retail Sales Up 8%, Defying Trend

Times Staff Writer

California consumers spent $60.6 billion on taxable retail sales in the first quarter this year, which is up 6.2% from the first quarter of 1988 but is the lowest rate of increase in more than two years.

In Orange County, however, consumers defied the statewide trend, spending $6.2 billion, or 8% more than in the first three months of 1988, according to figures released Monday by the State Board of Equalization.

When adjusted for a 4.9% rise in the California Consumer Index since the first quarter of 1988, taxable sales in the initial three months of this year posted a real growth rate of just 1.5%, the lowest adjusted rate of increase since the 0.1% posted for the second quarter of 1986.

Because the taxable sales information is nearly six months old when it is finally released, analysts caution against drawing much inference from it. In addition, a single quarter's performance is not a reliable indicator of coming trends.

Orange County, for example, began 1988 with its worst retail sales growth in six years, lagging behind the statewide average for the first two quarters. But it finished the year with a 7.4% growth rate, slightly ahead of the state's 7.2% increase.

And now, for the first quarter of 1989, the county's 8% increase ranks as the fifth-largest quarter-to-quarter increase in retail sales activity among the state's 13 large counties and is one of the biggest in Southern California, where fast-growing Riverside County led the pack with a whopping 16.1% increase, to $2.03 billion.

Riverside, in fact, led all of the large counties, followed by: Santa Clara County--home of the Silicon Valley--with a 9.8% increase in retail sales, to $4.03 billion; Fresno County, up 9.1% to $1.12 billion; Ventura County at $1.22 billion and San Bernardino County at $2.32 billion, each up 8.1%, and Orange County at $6.2 billion and San Diego County at $4.8 billion, each up 8%.

Of the remaining large counties, Sacramento, $2.06 billion, posted a 7.5% increase in taxable retail sales; San Francisco, $1.86 billion, was up 6.1%; Los Angeles County--the state's largest with about 8.8 million residents and $17.8 billion in sales--rose 5.5%; Alameda County, $2.81 billion, was up 5.4%; Contra Costa, $1.51 billion, increased 3.9%, and Kern County, $933.3 million, posted a slight 0.4% gain.

Analysts said the slower spending pace statewide was tied to an increasing inflation rate, compounded by a severe economic slump in many Northern California counties.

Board of Equalization analysts have not yet broken the figures down into county-by-county tallies, so more specific information is not available, said Bob Rossi, a research analyst with the agency.

But he said the Northern California counties fared poorly because the timber industry has been on the skids for several years.

Overall, Rossi said, purveyors of new cars and operators of restaurants and bars posted lower-than-normal increases, apparently reflecting a wariness by consumers as the year began.

New-car dealers reported that the total value of sales during the quarter grew just 3.9%, while eating and drinking places reported a 4.6% increase in taxable sales.

The biggest increases were reported by apparel stores--up 18.4% from the first quarter of 1988--and specialty retailers, up 11.3%

Southern California, with the state's most populous counties, accounted for 57% of the total retail spending in the state, down slightly from 59% in the first quarter of 1988.

In actual dollars, however, the nine Southland counties accounted for $36.2 billion in sales, up 6.8% from the $33.9 billion in taxable retail spending a year earlier. Adjusted for inflation, that represents a real increase of 2%--outstripping the statewide average of 1.5%.

FIRST QUARTER RETAIL SALES GROWTH

How Orange County retail sales growth compared to other Southern California counties and with the state. Figures show the percentage increase in the 1989 first quarter from the 1988 first quarter.

Riverside County: 16.1%

Imperial County: 11.1%

Ventura County: 8.1%

San Bernardino County: 8.1%

Orange County: 8.0%

San Diego County: 8.0%

Santa Barbara County: 6.8%

Kern County: 0.4%

STATEWIDE: 6.2%

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