Consumers are expected to have spent just slightly more in July, but they may have boosted what they spent online in a big way.
U.S. retail sales will be reported Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET. They are expected to show an increase of 0.1% in July, down from a 1% monthly gain in June, according to Dow Jones. Excluding autos, spending was expected to have been flat.
That data will provide an important piece of the economic picture as economists — and investors — attempt to get a clearer view after a blast of mixed statistics. For instance, jobs data has been very strong, even with rising claims for unemployment benefits. Some manufacturing data has been weak, while Tuesday’s report of industrial production showed a surprisingly strong increase in output.
Consumers are responsible for about two-thirds of the U.S. economy, so any insight into spending is important. Retail sales data is also affected by rising inflation, and the sales figure should reflect the impact of higher prices.
“It will be important because we have been getting these cross currents when it comes to economic data,” said Michelle Meyer, chief economist, U.S. at Mastercard. She said negative gross domestic product in both the first and second quarter sparked recession fears, but strong jobs data contrasted with that.
Meyer said the Mastercard SpendingPulse data she monitors was strong for July. “Spending was robust,” she said. “Our retail spending, excluding autos, was up 11.2% year-over-year in July.”
Mastercard SpendingPulse data measures in store and online spending for all forms of payment.
Tom Simons, economist at Jefferies, said he is expecting a much stronger than consensus gain of 0.8% in the July retail sales report, in large part because of the strength of wage gains and the resilient labor market. Last month, the economy added 528,000 jobs, easily beating expectations.
Simons noted retail sales declined 1.1% last July, so the year-over-year number could be large. “If you add in our number, you’re going to get a pretty strong acceleration of close to 10% year-over-year,” he said. He noted sales were up 8.4% annually in June.
Meyer said some categories in the SpendingPulse data for July show a clear increase from inflation while others did not. Grocery sales, for instance, increased 16.8% as food prices rose.
Gasoline prices were much higher than last year, but prices at the pump fell all during the month of July from the mid-June peak of $5.01 per gallon of unleaded, according to AAA. In the consumer price index, the gasoline index fell 7.7% in July, offsetting gains in food and shelter. The drop in gasoline helped bring headline inflation down to an 8.5% annual pace in July, from 9.1% in June.
“Given that gasoline stations represent 10.3% of this series and there is no inflation adjustment applied, the pullback in fuel costs evident in CPI implies tomorrow’s print will have a downward bias for this reason alone, hence the +0.1% consensus,” said Ian Lyngen, head of U.S. rates strategy at BMO Capital Markets. “The more relevant question becomes the degree to which less onerous gas prices free up consumption for other goods and services.”
According to SpendingPulse, fuel and convenience spending rose 32.3% year-over-year in July, but the growth rate was lower than June’s 42.1% increase.
A jump in online spending
Online shopping might lift retail sales results, thanks to Amazon.
“The biggest twist was e-commerce … It was up 11.7%, and in June, it was up in low single digits,” said Meyer. The category in the SpendingPulse data had not been up by double digits since the holiday shopping season in December.
Meyer said Amazon’s Prime Day sale July 12 and 13 and rival sales at other retailers in that period were likely behind the jump in online spending.
“The inflation story is really important,” said Meyer. “The inflation tax the consumer is dealing with is starting to ease. That’s going to be really interesting to see how that plays out.”
July spending includes expenses tied to summer vacations.
SpendingPulse data showed on year-over-year basis, airline spending rose 13.3%. Lodging was up 29.6%, and restaurant spending rose 9.5%.
There were also back-to-school purchases, with department store sales up 14% year over year. Home improvement sales lagged, up just 2.9%. Luxury, excluding jewelry, fell 3.7%.
“The consumer is still out spending. The consumer is obviously trying to navigate this economic environment. That means there are shifts in how they are spending,” said Meyer.