WASHINGTON — The number of people applying for U.S. unemployment benefits rose 16,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 360,000.
Still, the level remains consistent with steady hiring. And on Thursday some retailers reported their strongest sales gains since January, showing shoppers, enticed by warm weather and an improving economy, were taking advantage of summer discounts.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the less volatile four-week average increased 6,000 to 351,750 jobless applications per week.
Weekly applications data can be volatile in July because some automakers briefly shut down factories to prepare for new models and many schools close. Those factors can create a temporary spike in layoffs.
The broader trend has been favorable. Applications have declined steadily in the past year. Companies have laid off fewer workers and stepped up hiring. In the past six months, employers have added an average of 202,000 jobs a month, up from an average of 180,000 in the previous six months.
Yelena Shulyatyeva, an economist at BNP Paribas, said the volatility will likely continue for the rest of the month and “could mask the true underlying trend in jobless claims data.”
“We believe that labor market conditions remain on a gradually improving trajectory,” she added.
Employers added 195,000 jobs in June, and revisions showed that an additional 70,000 jobs had been added in the previous two months. The unemployment rate was 7.6 percent, down from 8.2 percent a year earlier.
More hiring could help the economy grow faster later this year. The economy expanded at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the January-March quarter. Most analysts think it slowed even further in the second quarter, to about 1 percent to 1.5 percent.
Greater hiring means more Americans are earning paychecks, boosting income and potentially more spending. That would be even better news for retailers already buoyed by strong sales in June.
Costco Corp., Fred’s Inc., and Stein Mart Inc. were among the retailers reporting their strongest sales gains in six months. Revenue at stores open at least a year — an industry measure of a store’s health — rose 3.9 percent in June from the year-earlier month ago, according to a preliminary tally of 12 retailers by the International Council of Shopping Centers. The mall trade group had expected an increase of 3 to 3.5 percent.
The data, released Thursday, offers positive signs for the back-to-school season. In June stores clear out summer merchandise to make room for goods for fall, so brisk sales mean that stores likely will not be stuck with piles of summer shorts and T-shirts that they need to get rid of.
June’s performance was its best performance since January’s 4.5 percent gain and showed gradual improvement since early spring. The tally was up 3.4 percent in May and 3 percent in April.
“The reports are encouraging,” said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. “We had seen consumers pull back a little earlier this year, but now there’s a willingness to spend.”
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