WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Sales by the nation's retailers edged up just 0.1 percent in October, reflecting a big decline in sales of autos, the Commerce Department said Tuesday.
The small October gain followed a big 0.9 percent increase in September and was the weakest showing since August, when sales were flat.
The weakness raised doubts about just how good a holiday shopping season retailers will have. Earlier this month, the nation's biggest chain retail stores reported a mixed performance, with department stores forced into heavy markdowns that eroded their profits.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer and usually one of the industry's best performers, has warned that its fourth-quarter sales will be slightly below Wall Street estimates.
The weakening consumer demand has been blamed on a variety of factors, from volatility in the stock market, which takes a dent out of consumers' investment portfolios, to rising fuel prices, which mean consumers have less to spend on other items,
The Federal Reserve, which meets Wednesday, is expected to leave interest rates unchanged. Economists believe the Fed is satisfied that the economy is slowing enough under the impact of six previous rate increases.
Also, analysts said the central bank doesn't want to roil financial markets with a rate increase at a time when investors are already jittery because of the uncertainty surrounding the still-unresolved presidential election.
Overall retail sales, after adjusting for normal seasonal variations, stood at $255.3 billion in October. The 0.1 percent increase from the September level was slightly above economists' expectations that sales would remain unchanged in October.
Sales were depressed by a 1 percent plunge in purchases of autos, the poorest showing since an identical 1 percent drop in April. Auto sales had risen 1.6 percent in September.
Sales of all durable goods, items expected to last three or more years, fell 0.5 percent in October, following a 1.1 percent increase in September.
Excluding the big decline in autos, retail sales were up 0.4 percent in October, a slowdown from a 0.7 percent advance in September outside of autos.
Department stores posted a 0.4 percent rise in sales last month, slightly better than a 0.3 percent increase in September.
Sales at hardware stores and building supply centers posted a strong 1.6 percent rebound last month after having fallen by 1.5 percent in September. Sales at furniture stores, another sector closely tied to the fortunes of the housing industry, were up 0.3 percent in October after a 0.4 percent advance in September.
Gasoline stations posted a 0.9 percent jump in October, but much of that strength reflected soaring energy prices. The retail sales figures are not adjusted for inflation.
Sales at restaurants and bars edged down a slight 0.1 percent in October after a big 1.2 percent increase in September.