By Steve Trader

On its surface, the positive retail sales number for February appears to be a sign that the frozen wheels of the winter economy might be thawing. In reality though, the number is nothing more than an indication of just how poor the last few months have been, and how much room the retail sector has for improvement.

Retail Sales vs Temperature

The report released on Thursday revealed a positive 0.3 percent increase for February. The positive 1.5 percent change from a year ago is a sign that consumers are starting to spend again.

When compared to the negative 0.6 percent adjusted number from January, February was a small victory.

But economist Ken Mayland of Clearview Economics says a closer look at the report reveals that February’s number is only a hair better than it was last September, a mediocre month. A true sign of improvement would be serial reports of positive numbers, and that’s not happening.

“That’s not a good pattern to find,” said Mayland. “There are weather effects, but it seems like the economy has lost some momentum since last year ended.”

In other words, the extreme cold excuse is starting to wear thin.

New York City bookstore owner Charles Mullen doesn’t disagree that the economy has been slow to improve, but he’s sticking with the weather excuse.

“We had a pretty good christmas, and then there was all the snow, said Mullen, who opened Bookbook in Greenwich Village in 2010. “We depend on having a lot of foot traffic, and we’ve definitely noticed a drop in customers these past few months.”

But Mullen is still holding out hope that warmer spring weather will heat up his sales, and he’s starting seeing small, positive signs.

“It was nice out last weekend, and we were busy again,” said Mullen. “I feel like a lifeguard on a beach, if the weather is good people come out.”

Sporting goods, hobby, books and music retail made a positive 2.5 percent comeback in February, though the category is still down negative 5.2 percent from one year ago. Buying books is a discretionary expense; a possible good sign that people have a little extra.

Nonstore retailers were up too, 1.2 percent last month and 6.3 percent from last year, a bright spot in this month’s report according to economist Ward McCarthy of Jefferies LLC in New York, but he’s still taking a pessimistic stance.

“Sure, it’s good that it didn’t fall again, but obviously it’s not the type of improvement we would like to see,” said McCarthy.

So what type of improvement would we like to see then?

“If spending continues to look weak, then gains are not much more than the inflation rate,” said Mayland. “I would like to see a positive 4.5 percent increase, about double the current inflation rate, year over year in retail sales to feel comfortable.”