US consumers spent freely in July, sending retail sales up 0.6% over the previous month, according to initial estimates by the Commerce Department. And the estimate for June sales was revised to show a gain.
Year over year, retail sales were up 4.2%.
But on an individual sector basis, the report showed mixed results, with some areas of the industry thriving and others continuing to struggle. While the data overall points to bright spots, it doesn't signal an end to the worrisome trends that have led to widespread store closings, declining same-store sales and financial challenges for many chains.
The beleaguered department store sector did manage to eke out a gain in July, bolstered by back-to-school shopping, although fell by 1.3% from the prior year. Many department stores, particularly those with an outsized presence in mid-tier malls, are hurting from declining mall and store traffic, partly because of increased spending online as well as shifting shopper preferences.
Another struggling category, electronics and appliance stores, saw a 0.5% decline from June. The sector, which has seen high-profile bankruptcy filings by chains such as hhgregg and Radio Shack, was off 0.9% year over year.
Nonstore retailers—ecommerce pure plays like Amazon.com, in the main—increased 1.3% over June's levels, and grew 11.5% annually, by far the largest of any sector tracked by the Commerce Department. Amazon's Prime Day sales were one spur for growth.
Hardware and gardening supplies stores saw sales rise a strong 1.2% for the month, or an 8.3% gain from a year ago—likely the clearest signal of broader economic strength, as the memory of the painful economic downturn of 2008-2009 recedes in consumers' memories.