Economy Watch: Retail Sales Gain Ground in December

Compared to a year ago, retail sales were also up in almost every category, with department stores even eking out an annual gain, the Census Bureau reported.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services, December 2017
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services, December 2017

U.S. retail and food service sales gained 0.4 percent compared with November and were up 5.4 percent compared with a year ago, the Census Bureau reported Jan. 12. The bureau adjusts for seasonal variation and holidays, but not price changes, so the gain is more than the fact that shoppers always buy more in December than in other months; it’s a solid gain, especially since inflation is a minor factor in most retail categories.

Despite December’s solid numbers, most categories of retailers did better in November than in December. Miscellaneous store retailers, which includes the likes of dollar stores and Walmart, lost 2.9 percent in sales in December, perhaps because of market saturation. Sporting goods stores lost 1.6 percent in sales for the month. Department stores, which are a contracting retail category, saw a decline of 1.1 percent . 

Compared with a year ago, retail sales were also up in almost every category, with some doing very well indeed. Furniture stores, and building material and garden equipment (two separate categories), both enjoyed annual gains of 9.9 percent. Miscellaneous store retailers turned in a gain of 3.8 percent, and even department stores eked out an annual gain of 0.5 percent.

Internet sales, which the Census Bureau calls “nonstore retailers,” did very well, as usual. For the month, sales were up 1.2 percent for Internet retailers. For the year, online sales gained 12.7 percent, the most of any retail category.