Americans gripped their wallets tighter in January and stayed inside due to frigid weather, but the slump in shopping was largely due to one-off factors.

The advance retail sales numbers released Thursday by the Commerce Department declined 0.8 percent, a notable drop from December and lower than expectations. Because the numbers are seasonably adjusted, some are worried.

But the one-month drop in retail sales may not be a harbinger of a downturn because much is weather-related. Strong sales at restaurants and bars suggest consumers are willing to spend.

“It’s one month of data so let’s not panic,” said Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland. “This is a significant number, but we shouldn’t read too much into it.”

Retail sales in February and March will determine whether this is a trend or a blip.

Sales were likely suppressed by the weather: January was one of the wettest on record in the U.S. and an arctic air mass sent temperatures plunging across much of the country around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

That cold snap pushed the sales of garden supplies and building materials down 4.1 percent, the steepest drop of all of the industry sectors.

Consumers also spent less on cars and gasoline, but dropping gas prices, not falling demand, was the cause.

Nevertheless, Americans spent more on furniture and other home furnishings (1.5 percent) and that left less for splurges.

But restaurants were a bright spot, showing growth both this month and a 6.3 percent increase over the previous January.

Unlike many purchases that are fixed – a broken refrigerator has to be replaced no matter what – spending on a $100 steak and a nice bottle of wine shows that Americans have extra money in their wallet and believe that they’ll have money in the future, too.

“Because it is kind of a confidence game, right?” said Andrew Zatlin of Southbay Research. “People think everything's good. Yeah, I'll load up on my credit card and a couple of months from now maybe I'll get a raise because you know, things are good, my company's gonna do well, they'll give me a raise.”

Since the pandemic, there has been no clear rule book for retail sales and consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of the economy. The unusual time created booms for some industries and busts for others that are still causing repercussions throughout the economy. And other seasonal expenditures have long tails – those Christmas presents may have been purchased much earlier and the resulting budget tightening felt months later.

This has made the retail sales numbers “noisy” in ways that obfuscate the larger economic trends, warned Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Bank of America Securities.

“Underneath it, we think there's enough strength in core to conclude that the consumer remains on solid footing and consumer spending remains healthy,” Gapen said.

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