U.S. Retail Sales Crept Up in April but the News for Restaurant and Bar Sales was Even Better

The foodservice segment continues to gain strength in contrast to the overall economy, which remains mired in a sluggish recovery.

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The U.S. Department of Commerce advance sales report for April found that total retail sales inched up 0.1 percent. This unspectacular advance is noteworthy in that projections had retail sales dropping by 0.4 percent to 0.5 percent in April over March. April 2013 sales were up 3.7 percent compared to April 2012.

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The Commerce Department did revise March sales vs. February down to minus 0.5 percent from the previous announced minus 0.4 percent. All figures are adjusted.

The truly good news is that once again restaurants and bars outperformed the market as a whole by advancing 0.8 percent in April over March. Sales last month were up 4.4 percent compared to April 2012. For the first 4 months of the year, restaurant and drinking place sales are up 3.9 percent.

Please note that these are advance numbers subject to revision, do not include many foodservice segments and are adjusted for calendar shifts but not for inflation.

Economic News This Week:

  • First-time jobless claims fell for the third straight week. Claims dropped to 323,000, a decline of 4,000, for the week ending May 3. The 4-week average for initial jobless claims is down to 336,000. While these numbers are approaching pre-recession levels, labor experts remain cautious, noting that a decline in layoffs does not necessarily translate into more hiring.
  • Productivity increased 0.7 percent in the first quarter based on Bureau of Labor Statistics. The consensus forecast was up 1.2 percent. The Bureau did revise its productivity estimate from negative 1.9 to negative 1.7 for the fourth quarter of 2012. While recognizing the difficulty in measuring productivity, many economists believe that it is the most important factor in determining the health of the economy. Higher productivity translates directly into higher profits, which results in business expansion including increased hiring.
  • Consumer confidence rose in the first quarter of the year to 93 from 91 reported in the fourth quarter of last year according to the Nielson Company's global survey of consumer confidence and spending intentions. Confidence increased 4 points in the U.S. and the worldwide average now stands at 93. However, this is far from the pre-recession level of 103. The U.S. scores in the top third of most confident countries and is ahead of all the European countries but behind Canada. The country with the most confident citizens is Indonesia (at 122) and the country with the most pessimistic folks is Portugal 31.
  • Small Business Owners are more optimistic about the economic recovery. The Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index found owners reporting their best cash flow in the last four years. But, owners are not confident enough to increase hiring or make capital investments.
  • Financial worries have declined in America with 53 percent of consumers telling Gallup that they are very or moderately worried about their personal finances. This is down from 61 percent last year and the lowest percentage since 2007.
  • Consumer credit grew by $7.9 billion in March according to the Federal Reserve. This is well below forecasts and the smallest increase since last July. The March growth in credit was approximately half that of February's. The increase was chiefly in "non-revolving" credit such as mortgages, student loans and car loans. Revolving credit, mostly credit card debt, declined by $0.7 billion.

Foodservice News This Week:

  • Shifting trends are affecting restaurant spending and causing the industry to rethink their consumer target. The NPD Group's analysis of eating out by age group shows the younger audience, meaning Millennials, have cut way back on their annual restaurant visits to a projected 202 times this year from 252 times in 2007. NPD points out that this group, which normally helps drive industry growth, was not the biggest spenders but they ate out a lot. Millennials have been hard hit financially by the recession and their spending habits might revert back as the economy improves but restaurant managers have to consider adjusting their marketing targets given what NPD calls "a shift of biblical proportion." Meanwhile, adults in their mid 30s to upper 40s are eating out more than millennials. The age group with the biggest increase in eating out are those 65 and older.
  • TGI Friday's is looking to return to its roots according to the Minneapolis St. Paul StarTribune. The chain, which has watched its U.S. sales fall from $2.1 billion in 2007 to $1.7 billion last year, wants to keep its current customers but to also become "a go-to center for a socially active clientele." The article points out that the Friday's original NYC location had the reputation as a pick-up bar. The revitalized Friday's will offer a new logo, a larger bar, an open kitchen and plusher leather booths. And, the familiar red and white stripe design is gone.
  • McDonald's global comparable store sales in April were down 0.6 percent, slightly better than the minus 1 percent to minus 1.5 percent that a lot of analysts predicted. Europe and other international markets were down more than forecasted but U.S. comps were mildly surprising coming in at up positive 0.7 percent. McDonald's attributed the increase to its McWrap and breakfast sales as well as improved service.
  • The fast food strike has spread from New York and Chicago to St. Louis. Stltody.com reports that one of the goals is a $15 an hour wage, the same amount requested in N.Y. Also in common with New York the strike involves community activists. The story listed a number of chain locations that were targeted including a Hardee's, Jimmy John's, Arby's, and Church's. It was not clear how many current fast food workers were involved in the job action.
  • America's favorite casual restaurant chains, based on a survey of 7,000 individuals by Market Force Information, placed Maggiano's as number one followed by Pappadeaux, the Cheesecake Factory, Bonefish Grill and P.F. Chang's. The bottom five chains were IHOP, Buffalo Wild Wings, TGI Friday's, Ruby Tuesday's, and Applebee's. Chains were ranked by the number of votes divided by the number of locations. Overall, the Olive Garden came out first.
  • The food truck story of the week involves Columbus, Ohio, where the city has launched a seven month pilot project that will designate specific parking places for food vendors. Current city regulations don't permit street sales forcing food trucks to do business from private parking lots. But, the Central Ohio Food Truck Association says the way the rule is drawn up, the spots are on a first come, first serve basis meaning that ice cream trucks, push carts or even a private car can use the designated parking areas.
  • Growth Chains: Pizza Fusion has signed an agreement with contract management firm MERA to take the pizza brand into airports nationally. McDonald's plans on opening 200-plus Mcafe's in China this year. Fazoli's has signed 3 franchise agreements that will result in the opening of a total of six restaurants in travel centers this year. Freebirds has an agreement with a franchisee to open 10 locations in Utah. Boardwalk Fresh Pizza plans on opening 100 or more stores in China. Blaze Pizza has an agreement for building 20 stores in Los Angles in the next 5 years.
  • Comparable Store Sales Reports: Carrol's Restaurant Group (up 1.0 percent), Chuy's (up 2.3 percent), Fiesta Restaurant Group (Pollo Tropical up 3.8 percent and Taco Cabana up 2.0 percent). Ignite Restaurant Group (down 1.4 percent), McDonald's (up 0.7 percent), Papa John's (up 1.6 percent, company owned up 3.9 percent, and franchised up 0.8 percent), Tim Horton's (down 0.5 percent), and Wendy's (company owned up 1.0 percent & franchised up 0.6 percent).

For details and comparable store sales of other chains, please click here for the Green Sheet.

Equipment Supplier Financial Reports. Quarterly financial data for publically held manufacturers and suppliers this week are for Illinois Tool Works, International Paper, Middleby Corporation and Standex International. Please click here for complete report.

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