Holiday Retail Sales Growth Were Better Than Many Troubled Retailers Are Suggesting

At the start of every January, many retailers start to release their readings on same-store sales and total sales trends for the holidays. This is the most important reporting of all because Christmas and holiday-related sales drive the annual earnings for many retail categories. For 2019, many retailers have entered the “revenue confessional booth” with very disappointing sales data from December. The government report from the U.S. Department of Commerce suggests somewhat of a different picture in economywide retail sales, but the data looks rather selective, based on certain categories.

Retail sales from stores, restaurants, gas stations and online purchases rose by 0.3% on a monthly basis but grew by 5.8% year over year in December of 2019. That came to a whopping $529.6 billion. The numbers were more or less in line with various consensus estimates in the media, and the annualized holiday sales growth was better than the 3.6% total retail sales growth for all of 2019 and better than the 4.1% annualized gain from the fourth quarter.

It is rather important to evaluate retail sales when it comes to the broader economy. Somewhere close to 70% of total U.S. gross domestic product is tied to spending at the consumer level.

According to the Commerce Department, retail sales at typical stores rose by 6.0% from a year earlier. Where the actions was really seen was online and from higher gas prices. The Commerce Department showed that the so-called “nonstore retailers” of e-commerce and catalogs rose by a sharp 19.2% from December of 2018 and those sales were up by 13.1% for the entire year. Sales at gasoline stations were up by 11.3% from December of 2018 along with higher prices at the pump.

Auto sales were up 4.1% in December’s annualized comparison, with furniture and home furnishings up 3.2% on annualized basis. The section for building materials, garden equipment and supplies showed a gain of 2.0% from a year earlier. Sales from electronics and appliances retailers were down by 0.7% from December of 2018, but for the entire year those electronics sales were down by 3.5%.

Food and beverage stores saw their sales rise by 3.7% over the prior December, and the category for health and personal care saw a 3.8% annualized gain in the month. Clothing and accessories stores turned in a mere 0.1% gain from a year earlier, but for the entire year those retail sales of clothes and accessories were down by 0.6% from 2018.

Some trends are still coming with pain elsewhere. General merchandise stores saw a 2.2% gain in December’s annualized reading, but department stores saw a 5.5% drop for the month.

Restaurants and bars seemed to be doing better than some concerns may have indicated. The sales from food services and drinking places saw a gain of 4.9% from December of 2018, but the full-year sales were up 4.4% from 2018 as a whole.

There are almost always some soft spots when it comes to evaluating retail sales. After all, a sharp rise in gas prices may curtail restaurant or other spending. The segment for online sales just keeps nibbling away at traditional retailers, and that tally for all of 2019 was a whopping $778.4 billion, compared with $4.47 billion for all sales in 2019 after backing out cars, car parts and gas station spending.