By Martin Crutsinger, AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans are pulling back on their spending, a trend that could slow the economic recovery if it continues.
A sharp drop in retail sales points to still-wary shoppers and could lead economists to curtail their expectations for growth.
Analysts cautioned against overreacting to Friday's Commerce Department report. It could signal a return to modest growth after two unusually strong months fueled by tax refunds, rebates for energy-efficient appliances and higher gas prices.
The 1.2% plunge in retail sales was the largest drop in eight months. But excluding three of the most volatile sectors — autos, building materials and gasoline station sales — retail sales actually rose one-tenth of a percentage point in May.
And sales figures for some industries can vary depending on how they are calculated.
For example, Commerce said auto sales fell 1.7% in May, but the industry itself has reported gains of 3.7% for the same period. They differ because the auto industry measures strictly sales volume of new cars; the government looks at revenue for cars, auto parts, tires and other products across the industry.
"Both reports are right. They are just tracking different things," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York.
Economists remain concerned that spending won't pick up in months ahead. Households are still facing near-double-digit unemployment.
Private employers are not hiring fast enough to bring that number down. Anxiety has gripped the stock market, partly because of the European debt crisis.
Any sustained pullback by shoppers could threaten the recovery because consumer spending accounts for 70% of economic activity.
The overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, grew at an annual rate of 3% in the first three months of this year. Much of that resulted from a 3.5% expansion in consumer spending — the best showing for this category in three years.
Some economists cautioned that estimates of growth for the current quarter might have to be scaled back.