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August Retail Sales Are Down, Is It Time to Worry?

By Nicholas Rossolillo – Sep 23, 2016 at 10:37AM

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A decline in consumer purchases can be a foreboding sign of things to come.

An Amazon Prime drone ready to make a delivery. Image source: Amazon.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released the August advance retail sales report. Negative news headlines asserted the report was negative, but actual results came in mixed. Longer-term trends continue to show U.S. household spending is on the rise. What did the numbers show, why does it matter, and what should investors do with the information?

A month of spending in review

August retail sales were down from July, showing a 0.3% decline when adjusting for seasonal variation, holidays, and business days. This is what had the media so excited last week, and especially leading up to the Federal Reserve's latest meeting at which it decides whether to raise short-term interest rates (it took a pass this month).

The adjusted numbers showed spending decreasing from July. However, when using unadjusted numbers, sales were actually up from July by 1.8%. Year-over-year sales in August were up 1.9% on an adjusted basis, and 3% on an unadjusted basis.

The takeaway here is that news headlines are wrongly honing in on the sequential decline. Consumer spending is continuing to grow at a steady pace when you look at the longer-term trend. Using one month's worth of sales data is not reason to panic.

Digging into the numbers a little deeper, e-commerce remains the brightest spot of the report, with 11% growth through the first eight months of the year. This is on top of 14% annual growth in online shopping in each of the last five years. Other top-performing sectors this year are health and personal care stores, home improvement and garden stores, and restaurants.

Why the retail sales report matters

Monthly retail sales are an important metric for the health of the economy. The amount of money households spend each year generally makes up about two-thirds of the U.S. GDP.

Retail sales are specifically important because it shows the amount of extra money families are willing to part with to purchase non-essential items. A slow-and-steadily rising total retail sales figure indicates people have extra money to spend each month. Even though retail sales were slightly down or close to flat during August, the trend over the last year still shows growth and, therefore, an economy still in an uptrend.

Moving past economics, the report is also of interest to investors because it shows where families' extra spending is going. As already mentioned, several industries within the retail sector are posting handsome gains in 2016.

What investors need to know

Health and personal care stores, home improvement and garden stores, and restaurants are leading specific retail industries this year. However, specific industry growth leaders can quickly change. What's winning this year may not be the best performer next year. Rather than load up on specific parts of the retail space, it's important to look at the bigger picture.

One long-term theme is the advance of e-commerce. Shopping online isn't new, and it's showing no signs of slowing down -- it's on track to post another year of double-digit gains.

This benefits Amazon (AMZN -2.72%) in particular, but other traditional retailers are picking up on the trend as well. Target (TGT -2.62%) has been growing online sales by about 30% over the last few years, and Wal-Mart (WMT -0.65%) made news recently with its purchase of in an effort to revitalize online sales growth.

One standout winner so far in 2016 has been Dick's Sporting Goods (DKS -3.25%). While a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer, the company has done a good job of pushing the online store as well. The company has provided a roadmap for success for other old-guard merchandisers.

Digital sales growth at Dick's has been running in the low teens for the last few years. Paired with expanding the number of physical locations, the company outlasted major competitor Sports Authority when it filed for bankruptcy early in the year. On the year, total sales are up 7.1%, and the stock is up 74%.

While some negativity surrounded the August retail sales report thanks to a small month-over-month decline, it isn't time to get anxious. The report typically comes in mixed month to month, so longer-term trends need to be the area of investor focus. That longer-term trend has come through clear: Digital sales continue to expand and should be a priority for investors in retail businesses going forward.

Nicholas Rossolillo owns shares of Target. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned, Inc. Stock Quote, Inc.
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