A new report Tuesday by state tax officials shows that Arizona consumers appear to be holding back on the pace of their spending.
Figures from the Department of Revenue show total retail sales for September, the most recent numbers available, totaled slightly more than $3.9 billion. That's an increase of just 2.5 percent from the same month a year earlier.
"These numbers are pretty lackluster,'' said economist Marshall Vest of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. He said that sales should be growing in the range of 4 to 5 percent.
Economist Dennis Hoffman of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, was equally unimpressed by the performance. He called the year-over-year increase "anemic.''
Of greater concern, Hoffman said, is that the September numbers are in line with the pattern he's seen for the past few months after signs of more rapid growth earlier in the year.
That, he said, raises the question of whether an annual growth rate of 2 to 3 percent is "the new world'' that Arizona will have to live with.
"Or is it maybe a summer doldrums or election related hesitation in consumer spending?'' Hoffman continued. "That's what we're going to have to determine.''
Vest said that it's not just consumer retail purchasing that appears off. He pointed out that contracting revenues are down after what had been record growth in the past several months.
But Vest also found some bright spots, especially in sales at bars and restaurants. He said spending there "has been surprisingly robust the past few months.''
Hoffman also noted that sales of cars and trucks are up more than 13 percent over the same time last year. But he said that is not the complete picture.
"The amount of sales today is still lower than it was in 2004,'' he said.
The September vehicle sales amounted to $530.8 million. But dealers were moving nearly $740 million worth of cars and trucks eight years ago, even when prices were lower.
"And there's more people here than in 2004,'' Hoffman said. "And the economy is bigger.''
He said, though, the increasing pace of vehicle sales could be a good barometer of consumer confidence.
"If people are not feeling good, they don't buy a car,'' Hoffman said. "They try to get by with a clunker.''
Both economists caution that the September numbers do not necessarily mean the recovery is stalling in Arizona.
"These data are volatile from month to month, so next month could look at lot stronger,'' Vest said.
Hoffman said there are some early indications that will be the case. He said preliminary numbers from the Department of Revenue show cash flow from sales taxes for October are higher, in the 7 percent range. But Hoffman said it will take the agency awhile to figure out what segments of the economy are contributing to that.