Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Sales at U.S. retailers probably rose in January by the most in four months, led by growing demand for autos, economists said before a report today.
The projected 0.8 percent increase would follow a 0.1 percent December advance, according to the median forecast of 82 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. The price of imported goods climbed and companies boosted stockpiles, other reports may show.
Consumers may have waited for post-holiday discounts to redeem gift cards as purchases at chains like Target Corp. and Limited Brands Inc. topped analysts’ forecasts last month. Further gains in employment are needed to bolster wages and underpin household confidence, ensuring that sales of more expensive items can be sustained.
“We do see significant support from autos this time,” said Sean Incremona, a senior economist at 4Cast Inc. in New York. “There can still be some support as we get fairly resilient income gains that could keep spending at a fairly decent clip.”
The Commerce Department will report the sales data at 8:30 a.m. in Washington. Economists’ estimates ranged from increases of 0.3 percent to 2 percent.
Employers added 1 million workers to payrolls over the past six months, according to Labor Department data. During that same period, the unemployment rate dropped by 0.8 percentage point to 8.3 percent, the lowest level in three years.
Job growth means Americans may be less apprehensive about making big-ticket purchases.
Purchases of cars and light trucks climbed to an annualized rate of 14.1 million last month, the highest since the so-called cash-for-clunkers program in August 2009 and the second- strongest since May 2008, according to Autodata Corp. Sales averaged 16.4 million in the two years before the last recession began in December 2007.
The January gain came even as automakers reduced incentives by 5.6 percent, or about $144 per vehicle sold, to $2,435 in January, Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Autodata said Jan. 31.
With the average age of cars and trucks rising to a record 10.8 years, analysts see pent-up demand boosting U.S. sales to a third-straight annual gain in 2012, the longest streak since sales peaked in 2000. An improving job market and available credit may propel an increase in vehicle sales of more than 6 percent from 2011 to 13.6 million, the average of 18 analysts’ estimates.
Purchases excluding autos and gasoline in January climbed 0.5 percent, a three-month high, according to the survey median.
Retail sales at stores open more than a year, excluding Wal-Mart Stores Inc., increased 4.8 percent in January, compared with a 3.5 percent advance in December, the International Council of Shopping Centers said in a Feb. 2 statement.
Purchases at Columbus, Ohio-based Limited climbed 9 percent, beating the average projection for a 2.7 percent gain from analysts surveyed by researcher Retail Metrics Inc. Target, the second-largest U.S. discount retailer, posted a 4.3 percent increase in same-store sales, topping the 2.4 percent estimate.
Shares of retailers are outperforming the broader stock market. The Standard & Poor’s Supercomposite Retailing Index is up 8.7 percent since the end of last year, compared with a 7.5 percent gain in the S&P 500 during the same period.
To ensure enough goods are on hand, companies are replenishing warehouses. Business inventories climbed 0.5 percent in December after a 0.3 percent gain the prior month, according to the survey median ahead of figures from the Commerce Department due at 10 a.m. in Washington.
Pickup in Demand
Since November, “we’ve actually seen some improvements in backlogs,” Thomas Kadien, senior vice president of consumer packaging at International Paper Co., the world’s largest pulp and paper producer, said on a Feb. 2 conference call. “For at least the last three weeks, we’ve felt very good about the demand. From a North American perspective, the softness is behind us, and we feel much better about the first quarter.”
Another report today may show the cost of imported goods climbed 0.3 percent in January after declining 0.1 percent the prior month, economists said before Labor Department figures due at 8:30 a.m. in Washington.
--With assistance from Chris Middleton in Washington. Editors: Carlos Torres, Kevin Costelloe
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