U.S. Retail Sales Report: Current Statistics and Recent Trends

Retail Sales Grew 3.9 Percent in the Past 12 Months

retail sales
Grocery stores are a component of retail sales. Photo: Vetta/Getty Images

Definition: The U.S. retail sales report is a monthly measurement of the U.S. retail industry. The U.S. Census Bureau publishes it. The Bureau surveys 4,900 firms each month to collect retail sales data. The report shows the total sales for the prior month. It also displays the percent change for that month. It reports on the percent change in year-over-year sales for the last 12 months. 

Current Statistics

U.S. retail sales rose 0.6 percent in July.

Every sector grew except for electronics, clothing and gas stations. That's despite rising gas prices, which boosted sales. That's because the Census Bureau doesn't adjust its statistics for inflation. That's improving now that OPEC signaled it will keep a floor under oil prices. Oil prices drive 71 percent of gas prices. Prices rose to $48 a barrel in July. Find out the latest oil price forecasts.

Year-over-year retail sales were up 3.9 percent. The biggest winners were building materials, up 7.9 percent, and automotive, up 6.3 percent.  Online retailers gained 10.4 percent. The sector now makes up 12 percent of total retail sales. That's double its market share in 2005. (Source: "Non-store Retailers," The Daily Shot, June 14, 2017.)

A robust economy will generate annual retail sales growth of 3 percent or more. July's 3.9 percent increase is, therefore, a good sign for third quarter economic growth.

That's because retail sales signals trends in consumer spending. That drives almost 70 percent of economic growth. In addition to retail sale, personal consumption expenditures include services, like housing and health care. For more on what's measured and how it's used, see What Is Retail Sales?

Recent Trends 

Retail sales hit a record of $5.2 trillion in 2014, according to the most recent annual data available from the Census.That's better than the prerecession high of $4.4 trillion spent in 2007.

It's also a 22 percent increase from 2009's record low of $4.06 trillion. (Source: "Annual Retail Sales Seasonally Adjusted," Census Bureau.)

Retailing is undergoing two major shifts. The first is technological, and the other a result of changes in consumer behavior. Stores that get both shifts will thrive. Retailers that don't will go the way of Circuit City, Borders and Blockbusters.

Although shoppers will never completely abandon brick-and-mortar stores, they expect retailers to offer a convenient online alternative. Most stores are responding while still trying to get shoppers into their stores for pick-up of large items. They must use a combination of branding, service, and pricing to convince shoppers to get dressed, get in their cars and drive to pick up merchandise. As a result, retailers are less likely to build new stores. This will hurt commercial real estate, neighborhood shopping centers, and jobs. (Source: "Shoppers Flee Physical Stores," The Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2014.)

The other technological shift will occur in the years to come. 3D printing allows people to print small plastic and metal toys and other objects. Although the printers are too expensive right now to have much of an impact, over time they will become as affordable as cell phones.

People will merely need to purchase or lease a software program that they download into the printer to produce whatever they want. Toymaker Hasbro has already partnered with 3D printermaker Shapeways to produce popular toys. 

The second is a change in consumer spending. The recession forced many people back into school to improve their job prospects. As a result, education loans rose while credit card use dropped. In addition, shoppers underwent a Shift to Thrift. They sought deals and discovered that many low-priced items were just as good as more costly products. Retailers found they had to offer value in the form of higher service and convenience in addition to lower prices. Here's more, and the three reasons causing this shift, in Consumer Spending Trends.

Expect to see more stores, like Home Depot, tie their online websites to their brick and mortar stores.

That way, they can offer the best of both worlds: the convenience of online with the customer service of the local neighborhood shop.

How to Use the Retail Sales Report to Predict Economic Growth

Retail sales are used to predict consumer spending trends. That's because the report comes out monthly. U.S. economic growth, as measured by gross domestic product, is reported quarterly. Therefore, the retail sales report is a more current measurement of economic health. You can use it to predict GDP before the before that report comes out. Keep in mind that the retail sales report doesn't adjust for inflation, while GDP does.  

Twenty percent of annual retail sales occur during the holiday season. That means you must look at year-over-year retail sales. That's because GDP is an annualized number. That means it gives an estimate for a year. GDP growth compares this annualized figure to the prior year. 

Keep in mind that GDP growth uses so-called real GDP figures. They eliminate the effects of inflation. The year-over-year retail sales reports use nominal GDP figures. GDP growth reports and YOY retail reports could have significant differences if inflation is very high or if there is deflation

Therefore, when using the retail sales report for forecasting, you should also look at other statistics. Most important, look at orders for durable goods. That's another great leading economic indicator

Pay attention to forecasts of specific holiday sales. The National Retail Federation surveys shoppers to find out how much they plan to spend for the major holidays. The report on Halloween spending provides early clues for the holiday shopping season. Black Friday sales are also obviously important. The NRF also reports on retail sales for Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day and Back to School.