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Retail sales were unchanged in April from March as inflation and interest rates curb spending

NEW YORK — (AP) — Americans unexpectedly paused their spending in April from March as inflation continued to sting and elevated interest rates made taking on debt more burdensome.

Retail sales were unchanged, coming in well below economists' expectations, and follow a revised 0.6% pace in March, according to Commerce Department data released Wednesday. Sales rose 0.9% in February. That comes after sales fell 1.1% in January, dragged down in part by inclement weather.

Excluding gas prices and auto sales, retail sales fell 0.1%

Retail sales were also dragged down by a 1.2% drop in online business, reflecting a new sales event at Amazon and the earlier timing of Easter this year, according to Michael Pearce, deputy chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics. Business at electronics stores was up 1.5%. Sales at home furnishings stores slipped 0.5%. Sales at clothing and accessories stores posted a 1.6% gain.

The retail sales figure came out on the same day that the government issued its report on consumer inflation, which showed it cooled slightly last month after three elevated readings, likely offering a tentative sigh of relief for officials at the Federal Reserve as well as President Joe Biden's re-election team.

“Consumer spending is slowing as elevated interest rates weigh on rate-sensitive spending and as the labor market cools," Pearce wrote in a report published Wednesday. But he said he's not concerned.

“The resilience of the economy frees the Fed to focus on the incoming inflation data to guide its rate decisions, which we think will improve over the coming months and prompt the Fed to begin gradually easing rates beginning in September,” he continued.

The retail sales data offers only a partial look at consumer spending because it excludes things like travel and lodging. However at restaurants, the lone service category tracked in the monthly retail sales report, sales rose 0.2% from March.

There have been some hints that the Federal Reserve's campaign to cool inflation by reining in spending may be taking hold. Employers pulled back on hiring in April adding 175,000 jobs, still a solid number, but down sharply from the surprisingly strong 315,000 hires in March.

Still, inflation remains an issue.

Prices rose 0.3% from March to April, the Labor Department said Wednesday, down slightly from 0.4% the previous month. Measured year-over-year, inflation ticked down from 3.5% to 3.4%. And a measure of underlying inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, also eased in April.

Inflation had been unexpectedly high in the first three months of this year after having steadily dropped in the second half of 2023. Stubbornly high apartment rents are a key reason behind persistent inflation.

The elevated readings had dimmed hopes that the worst bout of inflation in four decades was being rapidly tamed. That has weighed on consumer confidence.

U.S. consumer sentiment fell in May to the lowest level in six months with the leading cause cited by Americans being inflation and interest rates, as well as rising anxiety about unemployment despite the very health job market.

Just how Americans are spending offers some clues about their mindset in this environment of plentiful jobs and higher costs. Spending online rose 7% for the first four months of the year, according to Adobe Analytics, but a lot of that money is going towards cheaper personal care goods, electronics, clothing, furniture and groceries.

People continue to spend, but increasingly they’re looking for bargains.

The share of sales for the cheapest apparel online jumped from 36% in April 2019 to 53% in the same month this year, according to Adobe, while the market share of the most expensive apparel was more than halved, making up just 9% in the same time frame.

Arie Kotler, chairman, president and CEO of Arko Corp., a large operator of convenience stores in rural areas and small towns, said that higher gas prices and the cumulative effect on inflation in other areas is making shoppers hold back more than a year ago.

Heading into the Memorial Day weekend, the chain has stepped up discounts and is offering bundle deals for the 2 million members of its free loyalty program. That's widening the spending gap between loyalty members and nonmembers. Kotler said loyalty members are spending 32% more than non-members. Among the discounts: members can buy two 12-packs of Pepsi drinks and get a free pizza.

“When I make a promotion, those promotions are impacting our consumers because we know what the consumer is looking for,” he said.

That cautious behavior is playing out in the most recent quarterly financial reports from retailers and restaurant chains. Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, is slated to report its results on Thursday with other retailers like Macy's and Target expected to release quarterly data next week.

Home Depot, the nation's largest home improvement retailer, said Tuesday that sales declined for the third consecutive quarter to start 2024 as homeowners and prospective buyers wrestled with higher mortgage rates and inflation.

Starbucks last month lowered its sales expectations for the year as visits to its coffee shops slow worldwide. The decline in spending at U.S. stores was even worse than it had anticipated.

To combat slowing sales, McDonald's said late last month that it will begin rolling out more deals for customers after the burger giant realized people people were eating out less often in many of its biggest markets.

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AP Economics Writer Christopher Rugaber in Washington contributed to this report.

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