Retail sales storm back after Sandy

Black Friday was strong at area locations such Black Friday was strong at area locations such as the Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City. Long Islanders also bought supplies that had been lost or needed replacing after superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 23, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Retail sales on Long Island apparently weren't washed out by superstorm Sandy.

Data released Thursday by the state Taxation and Finance Department showed modest increases in sales-tax collections in both Nassau and Suffolk counties last month compared with November 2011.

Islandwide, estimated sales-tax collections were up 2.4 percent year over year. They rose 3.3 percent in Nassau and 1.6 percent in Suffolk.

Economists use sales tax numbers as a barometer of local consumer spending because monthly figures for retail sales are unavailable.

Sandy, which struck Long Island on Oct. 29, dampened spending in the first two weeks of November as stores were closed and shoppers couldn't reach them. But some experts said unusually strong sales around the Thanksgiving holiday and high demand for rebuilding supplies helped to make up for storm losses.

"Thanksgiving night sales, Black Friday and the weekend were all really good," said Ted Potrikus, executive vice president of the Retail Council of New York State, a trade group based in Albany.

"Many [consumers] also needed to replace possessions lost to the storm," he said.

Sandy shuffled spending with hardware and furniture stores, gas stations and automobile dealers seeing more traffic at the expense of department stores, clothing boutiques and jewelers, all of which rely on the holidays to turn a profit.

Potrikus added, "Sandy did to retail what it did to your area: it churned things up."

Pearl Kamer, chief economist at the Long Island Association business group, said anemic hiring and income growth weighed on consumers. The year-over-year increase in collections last month was smaller than the 8 percent seen in January-March 2012.

"I also think consumers are beginning to be concerned about the 'fiscal cliff,' " Kamer said, referring to the standoff in Washington that could lead to higher taxes and federal spending cuts beginning Jan. 1.

County governments are reliant on sales tax to help fund services.

Separately Thursday, the U.S. Census Bureau said retail sales rose 3.7 percent nationally last month compared with a year earlier. Bureau officials couldn't estimate Sandy's impact, saying, "The sample is designed to measure retail and food services activity at the national level and not at specific geographic areas."

Still, some economists were buoyed by the national numbers. Jared Franz, of T. Rowe Price mutual funds, said, "Consumer spending [is] trending slightly better than expected."

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