Retail sales edged up a tick in January, but experts called it a statistical fluke that did nothing to slow payroll reductions, wage freezes and other cost cuts spreading across the retail industry.
The U.S. Commerce Department reported that retail sales rose 1 percent in January from December. They credit solid sales of basics like groceries, higher gas prices and a slight uptick in moribund auto sales.
But that was on a seasonally adjusted basis after Commerce decided to revise sales for December, which were worse than reported earlier. Compared with January a year ago, seasonally adjusted sales decreased 0.5 percent. Not counting autos, gas and food, general merchandise sales slumped 2.1 percent.
"It was a surprising start for the year," said Rosalind Wells, chief economist for the National Retail Federation. "But it's going to be difficult to maintain this momentum."
Even with a shot from the congressionally approved economic stimulus package, the federation sees no recovery until the fourth quarter and now questions if the Obama administration's stimulus is big enough.
This week Pier 1 said it will trim worker hours and close a distribution center and pledged to shut down 125 unprofitable stores unless it gets lower rents. After closing 78 stores, Talbots will close 20 more and cut $150 million in expenses, much of it by scheduling employees to work fewer hours.
In an unprecedented move, Westfield Group will cut hours of operation by five hours a week in 48 of its 55 malls starting March 1. Locally that means Westfield Brandon, Citrus Park and Countryside will open a half hour later, at 10:30 a.m. weekdays, and close a half hour earlier, at 8:30 p.m. weeknights. Weekend hours are unchanged.
"We're trying to help our tenants find ways to conserve and respond to changed traffic patterns," said Catherine Dickey, Westfield spokeswoman.
It was Westfield's answer to growing pressure from many chains to reduce costs. So far the cutback in hours has been resisted by the owners of International Plaza in Tampa and Simon Property Group, which owns Gulfview Square in Port Richey and Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg.
While January is typically a poor barometer for retail sales, historically it's the biggest month for corporate downsizing. In that regard retailers led all industries, wiping out a record 54,000 jobs last month of 241,000 jobs that were vaporized nationally, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based human resources consulting firm.
Malls and high-end retailers were particularly hard hit in January as mall foot traffic plunged 13 percent, according to ShopperTrak.
Neiman Marcus, which cut 375 jobs and delayed new stores for Sarasota and Princeton, N.J., by a year to 2011, reported a January same-store sales decline of 26 percent. As a result the luxe retailer will report the first quarterly loss for a holiday season in its century-long history.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)-893-8252.