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The government said Thursday that the combined sales of Japan’s wholesalers and retailers in 2004 rose 2.2 percent from a year ago to 539.70 trillion yen for the first improvement in 13 years, but noted that retail sales are now flat.

Wholesalers’ sales rose 3.1 percent to 411.58 trillion yen in the first increase in 13 years, due mainly to an uptrend in crude oil prices and steady sales of digital appliances, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said.

But retail sales fell 0.6 percent to 128.12 trillion yen for the eighth straight yearly decline, indicating that personal spending is still weak amid persistent deflation.

Sales by large retailers — supermarkets and department stores — declined 1.5 percent to 21.43 trillion yen for the seventh consecutive yearly fall.

Supermarket sales dropped 0.6 percent to 12.57 trillion yen for the third straight yearly decline, and department store sales shrank 2.8 percent to 8.85 trillion yen for the seventh yearly drop in a row, the ministry said.

Convenience store sales meanwhile expanded 2.7 percent to 7.29 trillion yen for the sixth straight yearly rise.

In December, overall retail sales fell 0.7 percent from a year earlier to 12.7 trillion yen after showing 0.6 percent growth in November.

The ministry downgraded its assessment of retail sales for the first time in a year, using the phrase “retail sales are flat” in place of “there is an incipient sign of recovery in retail sales,” a METI official said.

“Retail sales have been little changed since September and the ministry decided it is not appropriate to keep the previous assessment.”

December sales by wholesalers climbed 4.3 percent to 38.92 trillion yen for the seventh straight monthly rise.

Combined sales by wholesalers and retailers in December grew 3.0 percent to 51.63 trillion yen, also rising for the seventh month in a row.

Sales by large retailers fell 1.7 percent to 2.30 trillion yen in December.

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