By Lenore Fedow
U.S. retail sales were up 0.6 percent month-over-month in August to $537.5 billion.
New York—Consumer spending in the U.S. slowed in August following the end of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans.

Overall retail sales were up 0.6 percent month-over-month in August to $537.5 billion, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, climbing 2.6 percent year-over-year.

In July, sales were up 0.9 percent month-over-month, as per revised numbers, following an 8.4 percent jump in June.

Core retail sales, which exclude automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, fell 0.1 percent, missing expectations of a 0.5 percent rise.

In July, core retail sales were up 0.9 percent.

A $600 weekly unemployment subsidy, part of the coronavirus relief package, expired at the end of July.

There is a $300 weekly subsidy in its place, though it’s not available in all states.

The end of these payments was estimated to reduce household income by $70 billion in August, as per a statement by Gus Faucher, chief economist of PNC Financial Services, in July.

Job growth slowed in August as unemployment benefit applications continued to pile up while manufacturing output also slowed.

Retail sales are continuing to recover nonetheless, stressed the National Retail Federation in a press release following the August results.

“While August retail sales numbers were a bit mixed, we believe the consumer is resilient and is in good shape as we head into the holiday season,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

Consumers responded well to the federal relief measures, he said, adding he wasn’t surprised spending would slow as the programs ended and believes additional stimulus measures are needed to bolster economic recovery.

“August was topsy-turvy as COVID-19 brought a lot of shifts and uncertainty regarding back-to-school spending and other issues but consumer spending remains intact even if sales grew less than July,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. 

He noted that retail spending habits have been “largely consistent and stable” over the past few months as stores began to reopen.

While some consumers will likely reduce spending as the $600 subsidy ends, he said, some have put money aside in savings or have other governmental assistance available. 

“At this juncture, it is difficult to sort out how much economic activity is due to government support and how much is evidence of hardcore demand due to recent job gains,” he said.

August retail numbers may have been higher if small businesses were not struggling with the reopening process and a return to full operations, he said.

The NRF also calculates monthly retail sales, narrowing in on core retail and excluding auto sales, gas stations, and restaurants.

Its calculations show August sales were up 0.1 percent seasonally adjusted from July and up 5.6 percent unadjusted year-over-year.

Looking at the commerce department’s data by category, clothing and accessory stores saw the strongest sales gains in August, up 2.9 percent month-over-month, though sales were down 23.5 percent year-over-year.

More than half of retail categories saw month-over-month gains while two-thirds saw year-over-year increases.

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