WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Commerce Department releases September retail sales data Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. Eastern.
STEADY SALES GROWTH: Economists forecast that retail sales rose 0.2 percent last month, according to a survey by FactSet. This would follow a 0.2 percent gain in August and 2.2 percent increase over the past 12 months.
AUTO-BUYING ACCELERATES: More Americans are buying cars and dining out as the U.S. economy has entered its seventh straight year of expansion. Spending increased amid a surge in hiring — 2.8 million jobs in the past year — that has since slowed in recent months. The slowdown caused largely by global pressures has raised questions about whether improved retail sales and consumer demand can sustain economic growth in the coming months.
Auto dealers enjoyed a busy September. The industry sold 1.44 million cars and light trucks last month, up 15.8 percent from a year ago. Buyers took advantage of low rates for auto loans and incentives over the Labor Day weekend to unload cars before the new model-year vehicles arrive at dealerships.
More Americans are also heading to restaurants and bars. Sales at dining establishments have climbed 8.2 percent this year. Restaurants and bars account for almost 13 percent of all hiring in the last 12 months.
Yet overall retail sales have been muted for much of this year. Cheaper gasoline largely explains the modest sales growth. Prices at the pump have fallen nearly 28 percent over the past year to $2.31 a gallon, according to AAA. As a result, since August 2014, sales at gasoline stations have plunged 17.2 percent.
Analysis by the JPMorgan Chase Institute suggests that consumers spent 80 cents of every dollar saved, with the largest shares going to restaurants and grocery stores.
Economists watch the retail sales report closely because it provides the first indication each month of the willingness of Americans to spend. Consumer spending drives 70 percent of the economy. Yet retail sales account for only about one-third of spending, with services such as haircuts and Internet access making up the other two-thirds.