Economy Watch: Retail Sales Surge in December

Total retail sales for the month were up 4.3 percent from the same time last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

U.S. retail and food services sales enjoyed an increase of 0.6 percent in December, the U.S. Census Bureau reported on Friday, and the October-to-November change was revised from up 0.1 percent to up 0.2 percent. Total retail sales for the calendar year 2016 were up 3.3 percent compared with 2015, and up 4.3 percent in December 2016, compared with the previous December. The bureau adjusts its figures for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, so the latest data isn’t a reflection of the holiday spike in sales, but part of a broader increase.

Most of the gain for the month, however, was driven by car sales. The total gain without motor vehicles and parts was only 0.2 percent for the month, though 3.4 percent for the year. Car sales spiked 2.4 percent for the month and 6.8 percent for the year.

Furniture stores—which have been seeing brighter sales prospects lately, after a number of hard years—enjoyed a 0.5 percent increase in sales for the month (and 3.1 percent for the year). Sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, which suffered a drop of a full 1 percent in sales in November, eked out a gain of 0.2 percent in December, but were still down 3.6 percent for the year.

Compared with last year, health and personal care stores was a winning category, with sales up 6.2 percent, and up 0.3 percent for the month. Most other categories of retailers managed to turn in higher annual sales for the year as well, though there were some exceptions. Department stores continued to be a losing proposition, with a loss of 8.4 percent in sales for the year, and electronics stores suffered a drop of 2.4 percent in sales compared with last year.

According to the bureau, nonstore retailers (Internet sales) continued their relentless increase. Sales were up in that category for the month by 1.3 percent and 13.2 percent since this time last year.