U.S. Retail Sales Report: Statistics and Trends

February Retail Sales Up a Robust 5.4 Percent YOY

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

Current U.S. Retail Sales Report

U.S. retail sales fell 0.3 percent in May. Every sector lost ground except for furniture, food and beverage stores, clothing stores and online retailers. Electronics sales fell 2.8 percent, while department stores took a 1 percent hit.. 

Gas station sales fell 2.4 percent. Keep in mind that falling gas prices accounted for some of the drop in gas station sales. That's because the Census Bureau doesn't adjust its statistics for inflation.

That should improve now that OPEC signaled it will keep a floor under oil prices. Oil prices drive 71 percent of gas prices. Prices fell to $50 a barrel in May, but should average $53 a barrel for the year. Find out the latest oil price forecasts.

Year-over-year retail sales were up 3.8 percent. The biggest winners were building materials, up 10.8 percent.  Online retailers gained 10.2 percent over sales in May 2016. 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. May's 3.8 percent increase is, therefore, a good sign for second 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?

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 pre-recession 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 Retail Sales Data Predict Economic Growth

Retail sales are reported monthly. Economic growth, as measured by gross domestic product, is reported only quarterly. Therefore, the retail sales report is a more current measurement of economic health. Keep in mind that the retail sales report doesn't adjust for inflation, while GDP does. Also, 20 percent of annual retail sales occur during the holiday season. You should also look at business orders for durable goods and other monthly leading economic indicators.