US retail sales rose 1.3% last month, a sign of resilience

WASHINGTON — Americans stepped up their spending at retailers, restaurants and auto dealers last month, a sign of consumer resilience as the holiday shopping season begins amid painfully high inflation and rising interest rates.

The government said today that retail sales rose 1.3% in October from September, up from a flat reading in September from August. The increase was led by car sales and higher gas prices. Still, excluding autos and gas, retail spending rose 0.9% last month.

Even adjusting for inflation, spending increased at a solid pace. Prices rose 0.4% in October from September. Economists pointed to two likely factors behind the gain: Amazon held another Prime Day promotion last month, and California distributed inflation relief checks of up to $1,050.

Steady job growth, rising wages, and higher savings after many people cut back on travel and entertainment during the pandemic have enabled surprisingly steady spending by consumers, particularly those with higher incomes.

Yet there are ongoing signs that cracks are forming in consumers’ ability to keep up. More households are relying on credit cards to pay bills, with nationwide credit card balances jumping 15% in the July-September quarter from a year ago, the largest year-over-year increase in two decades, according to a report Tuesday from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

And retail chain Target announced unexpectedly weak profits Wednesday as its increasingly price-sensitive customers pulled back on spending.

Research last week from Bank of America found that consumers are increasingly seeking out cheaper options when it comes to groceries and dining out. Transactions by Bank of America customers, using credit and debit cards, show that they are now visiting fast food restaurants more often than full-service restaurants, after eating at both equally for about a year after the spring of 2021.

The Bank of America report also found that, adjusting for inflation, grocery spending per household has fallen sharply, to below pre-pandemic levels, even though their visits to grocery stores haven’t fallen. Those trends suggest more people are seeking out cheaper options when shopping for food.