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US retail sales were flat in July as inflation takes a toll

Shoppers wearing protective masks carry bags inside the Westfield San Francisco Centre shopping mall in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 9, 2021.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON (AP) — The pace of sales at US retailers was unchanged last month as persistently high inflation and rising interest rates forced many households to spend more cautiously.

Retail purchases were flat in July after having risen 0.8% in June, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

America's consumers, whose spending accounts for nearly 70% of economic activity, have remained mostly resilient even with inflation near a four-decade high, economic uncertainties rising and mortgage and other borrowing rates surging. Still, their overall spending has weakened, and it has shifted increasingly toward necessities like groceries and away from discretionary items like home goods, casual clothes and electronics.

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The government's monthly report on retail sales covers about a third of all consumer purchases and doesn’t include spending on most services ranging from plane fares and apartment rents to movie tickets and doctor visits.

Though overall inflation remains painfully high, consumer prices were unchanged from June to July — the smallest such figure in more than two years.

Still, inflation is posing a serious threat to families. Gasoline prices have fallen from their heights, but food, rent, used cars and other necessities have become far more expensive, beyond whatever wage increases most workers have received.

Despite a still-robust job market, the US economy shrank in the first half of 2022, raising fears of a potential recession. Growth has been weakening largely as a consequence of the Federal Reserve’s aggressive interest rate hikes, which are intended to cool the economy and tame high inflation.

The impact of the Fed's hikes has been felt especially in the housing market. Sales of previously occupied homes have slowed for five straight months as higher mortgage rates and high sales prices have kept many would-be buyers on the sidelines.

But the most important pillar of the economy — the job market — has proved durable. America’s employers added a hefty 528,000 jobs in July, and the unemployment rate reached 3.5%, matching a near-half-century low reached just before the pandemic erupted in the spring of 2020.

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