U.S. shoppers dug in their heels in July, bad news for the stalling economy, worse for struggling retailers.
Excluding gasoline and autos, U.S. retail sales rose a meager 0.1 percent last month from June, according to figures released Thursday by MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which estimates spending in all forms including cash. Excluding autos, sales fell by 0.9 percent.
The tepid month-to-month increase, excluding the volatile elements of gas and autos, follows a 0.5 percent decline from May to June and a 2.1 percent drop from April to May. Compared with a year earlier, however, July sales excluding autos and gasoline rose 1 percent. July's sales rose still more including gas - 1.4 percent - because gas prices are up overall.
"It's growth, but it's pretty weak growth," said Kamalesh Rao, director of economic research for SpendingPulse.
With consumer spending accounting for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, economists watch it closely for clues to what lies ahead.
Last year, July sales fell 1.9 percent from the previous year, excluding autos and gas. Rao said volatility in gas prices means excluding autos and gas offers a better sense of consumer activity.
July's sales brought the average growth rate for May through July, excluding autos and gas, to 1 percent, from a year earlier. That's much slower than the previous three months' 3.5 percent pace.
Excluding just autos, spending growth for May through July also slowed, to 1.6 percent. The previous three months saw a growth rate of 6.5 percent.
Bright spots remained in online sales, electronics, airlines and lodging as Americans devoted their limited dollars to summer travel.