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Retail shoppers feeling pinched

NEW YORK — Shoppers are showing signs of pulling back on spending on discretionary items like clothing and home goods as gasoline and groceries eat up more of their paychecks.

Those pressures led many retailers on Thursday to report only modest revenue increases in May, the latest sign of the economy hitting a soft patch.

Retailers that cater to wealthy shoppers and warehouse clubs like Costco that also sell gas reported the biggest gains.

Midpriced department stores such as Dillard's, JCPenney and Kohl's all missed expectations.

Revenue rose 5.4 percent overall at stores open at least a year among 27 retailers, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Excluding gasoline, revenue rose 3.7 percent.

That was within the 3 percent to 4 percent range expected, said Mike Niemira, ICSC chief economist and director of research.

"On the surface, the numbers look pretty good," Niemira said. "But it is being driven by a very narrow set of retailers."

The figures are based on revenue from stores open at least one year, a key indicator of a retailer's health because it excludes results from stores opened or closed during the year.

Niemira expects the June revenue figure to rise 3 to 4 percent, excluding fuel.

In other economic reports released Thursday:

• Fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, but applications remain stuck at a level that signals weak job growth. The number of applications for unemployment benefits dropped by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 422,000, the Labor Department said. It was the third drop in four weeks. But the declines follow much bigger increases in April.

• U.S. businesses cut back on their orders for heavy machinery, computers and autos in April, partly because the March earthquake in Japan has made components harder to come by. Orders to U.S. factories fell 1.2 percent in April and a measure that signals business investment dropped 2.3 percent, the Commerce Department reported.

• U.S. companies squeezed more work out of their staffs in the first three months of the year. But the gains are slowing, suggesting employers may need to hire more workers if they want to produce more goods and services. Worker productivity rose at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the January-March quarter, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's a slight upward revision from the government's first estimate of 1.6 percent. But it is significantly lower than the 2.9 percent growth rate in the final three months of last year. Unit labor costs rose at a 0.7 percent rate, down from an initial estimate of 1 percent growth.

Retail shoppers feeling pinched 06/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 2, 2011 9:37pm]
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