Retail numbers were up slightly in March, which gave mixed results to related exchange traded funds (ETFs), but it’s not what you think.

The 0.2% gain in sales primarily is the result of the higher cost of gas. Retail sales would have been flat, had it not been for a big 1.1% jump in sales at gas stations, reports Martin Crutsinger for the Associated Press. Grocery store sales also were up 0.3%, thanks to the higher cost of food.

The good news is that analysts had been expecting a 0.1% increase. The report follows last week’s news that many retailers experienced sluggish sales last month. Only Wal-Mart (WMT) and Costco (COST) reported some gains, a sign that shoppers are turning into bargain-hunters and limiting themselves largely to necessities.

Otherwise, consumers still were shying away from the malls and confidence plunged to its lowest reading in 26 years earlier this month.

The Commerce Department has also reported that inventories held by businesses rose by 0.6% in February, which adds to a 0.9% rise reported in January. Translation? People aren’t buying.

Retail ETFs seemed to be saying "meh" to the news, midday:

  • Retail HOLDRs (RTH), down 1.5% year-to-date
  • SPDR S&P Retail (XRT), down 7.4% year-to-date
  • Consumer Discretionary SPDR (XLY), down 5.7% year-to-date

For full disclosure, some of Tom Lydon’s clients own shares of RTH.

The opinions and forecasts expressed herein are solely those of Tom Lydon, and may not actually come to pass. Information on this site should not be used or construed as an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy, or a recommendation for any product.