US retail sales edge up – barely

April L. Brown/AP
Melani Dean, and her two children Zayneh (left) and Zarah pick out vegetables at a Rogers, Ark., Wal-Mart Supercenter. Retail sales edged up in May, including a 0.4 monthly rise for grocery stores, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Americans spent a little more at stores in May, which registered the first monthly jump since February, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. But rising gasoline prices accounted for most of the increase, leaving sales for the rest of the retail sector almost flat from April's low level.

US retail sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.5 percent in May to $340 billion. Factoring out the rise in spending at gas stations, the increase was 0.2 percent.

"May’s retail sales figures suggest that the potential boost from the fiscal stimulus is largely being eaten up by the recent jump in gasoline prices, just as it was last year," wrote Paul Dales, US economist for Capital Economics in Toronto, in an analysis of the report.

There were some bright spots in the May report. Building material and garden-equipment and garden-supplies dealers saw a 1.3 percent jump in sales from April. Health and personal-care stores saw an 0.7 percent increase. Auto and auto-parts dealers saw an 0.5 percent rise.

Sporting-goods, hobby, book, and music stores saw the biggest decline (0.8 percent), followed by department stores and electronics and appliance retailers.

Since hitting a 13-month low in December, retail sales have only recovered a slight 1.1 percent. They are down 10.5 percent from their peak in November 2007.

Consumers, it seems, are content to keep spending at today's relatively low levels.

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