U.S. Retail Sales 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 rose 0.1 percent in February. Gains in building materials, furniture and online offset declines in electronics, auto sales, clothing and department stores. Gas station sales fell 0.6 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.

 

Year-over-year retail sales were up 5.4 percent. A robust economy will generate retail sales of 3 percent or more. This is a good sign for first-quarter economic growth. Retail sales and consumer spending drive almost 70 percent of economic growth. For more on what's measured and how it's used, see What Is Retail Sales?

Historical Annual and Monthly Retail Sales

Here's retail sales data for each year and month since 2012, along with what drove growth.

2017

  • January - Sales rose 0.6 percent thanks to higher gas prices. 

2016

  • January - Sales fell 0.4 percent due to a 3.3 percent drop in gas prices and a 1.6 percent decline in department store sales. 
  • February - Sales were flat as a 5.4 percent fall in gas prices offset other gains.
  • March - Sales fell 0.3 percent due to declines in auto, grocery, gas stations, and department stores.
  • April - Sales rose 1.2 percent despite a 3.1 percent drop in building materials stores and a 9.5 percent decline in gas station sales. The real gainers were auto (2.3 percent), hobbies (5.2 percent), and drug stores (8.3 percent).
  • May - Sales rose 0.2 percent due to a 2.5 percent drop in building materials, and a 0.9 percent fall in department stores.
  • June -  Sales rose 0.8 percent due to a 4.2 percent jump in building materials. YOY sales were up 2.7 percent.
  • July - Sales rose 0.1 percent due to a 1.9 percent rise in auto sales. It was offset by a 2.6 percent drop in gas station sales. 
  • August - Sales fell 0.2 percent due to declines in almost every category. 
  • September - Sales rose 1.0 percent thanks to increases in autos, gas stations, and furniture stores. They offset declines in department and electronics stores.
  • October - Sales were up 0.6 percent. Gas station sales were up 2.5 percent.
  • November - Sales only rose 0.2 percent. Restaurants were the only category that rose more than 1.2 percent.
  • December - Sales rose a robust 1 percent, driven by a 3.2 percent gains in auto sales. Online retailers rose 1.9 percent. Gas station sales increased 3.2 percent. These offset declines in electronics, restaurants, and department stores.

2015 - Sales Rose 2.4 percent for the Year

  • January - Sales were down 0.8 percent,  thanks to a 9.8 percent drop in gas station sales.
  • February - Falling gas prices helped push overall sales down 0.5 percent.
  • March -  Sales rose 1.1 percent, boosted by auto sales, building materials, and department stores. 
  • April - Sales increased 0.2 percent, thanks to drops in department stores (-2.9 percent), electronics, building supplies, gas stations, and grocery stores.
  • May - Sales rose 1.0 percent due to an upswing in auto sales (1.9 percent) and apparel (1.4 percent). Gas stations sales rose 3.7 percent, but that's mainly from higher gas prices
  • June - The adjusted sales figures showed there was no overall gain for the month. Increases in electronics/appliances and gas stations were offset by declines in auto sales.
  • July - The Census revised sales up to 0.7 percent, with most gains in building supplies and auto sales.
  • August - In the Census revision sales were flat from the prior month. Falling gas prices offset modest across-the-board gains.
  • September - Sales were flat, rising exactly zero percent. A 4 percent drop in gas station sales was offset by increases in online (0.3 percent), sporting goods (1.3 percent), and autos (1.4 percent).
  • October - Sales rose 0.1 percent, partly due to disappointing Halloween sales. Gas station sales were down 1.0 percent, and auto dealers were down 0.3 percent.
  • November - Sales rose 0.4  percent due to low participation for Black Friday and declining oil price and gas prices. Gas station sales dropped 0.8 percent.
  • December - Sales rose 0.2 percent. Increases in online sales (8.7 percent), building materials (1.4 percent), sporting goods (1.9 percent), and restaurants (1.3 percent) offset declines in electronics (-0.9 percent), gas stations (-8.1 percent), and department stores (-3.8 percent). 

2014 (2.6 percent)

  • January - Sales were down .4 percent, and not because of the weather.
  • February - Online shoppers helped push sales up .3 percent.
  • March - Sales rose a welcome 1.5 percent, boosted by automobiles.
  • April - Sales only rose .5 percent, weighed down by a 2.3 percent decline in electronics. Even online sales fell .9 percent. That indicates that first-quarter decline in GDP may not have been just weather-related.
  • May - Sales were only up .5 percent. Department stores were the worst hit, falling 1.1 percent. Electronics stores fell .6 percent,  while clothing stores and hobby stores were each down .5 percent. The biggest drivers of growth were online, up .6 percent, auto dealers, up 1.0 percent, and drug stores, up .1.1 percent. This is further proof of weak demand that wasn't related to harsh winter storms.
  • June  - Sales worsened, rising just .2 percent, less than the .5 percent gain in May. Building materials and garden equipment were the worst hit, with a 1.0 percent drop. Restaurants and hotels were down .3 percent, auto dealers lost .2 percent, and furniture stores fell .1 percent. What drove growth? Online and drug stores, each up .9 percent.  Clothing stores saw a .8 percent rebound from May's loss.
  • July - Sales rose .3 percent during the month (4.2 percent for the year). The strongest gains were in apparel, automotive and sporting goods, while building materials and furniture stores sales fell.
  • August - Sales were up .6 percent, driving a 5 percent growth year-over-year. Building materials and motor vehicles were up, while department stores lost sales. 
  • September - Sale fell .3 percent, thanks to losses across the board. The worst-hit were clothing, online sales, and building materials. However, it's still a healthy 4.3 percent gain over last year.
  • October - Sales rose 0.5 percent, thanks to gains in online sales, and sporting goods/hobby stores. Department stores and electronics stores took a hit, which isn't a good sign for the Black Friday kick-off to the holiday shopping season.
  • November - Sales rose 0.7 percent, despite weak sales on Black Friday itself. Most of the gain, however, was in automobiles (up 1.7 percent) and building materials (up 1.4 percent). Three holiday-related areas also gained strongly: clothing, (up 1.2 percent), department stores (up 1.0 percent) and online, (also up 1.0 percent).  Electronics stores rose a decent 0.9 percent, while book/hobby stores only rose 0.3 percent. The only area that declined was gasoline stations, and that's because of ongoing lower prices at the pump. 
  • December - Sales were again pushed down (-0.9 percent) by a drop in gas station sales (-7.4 percent). Holiday sales were also disappointing for building materials/garden equipment, consumer electronics, clothing, online, department stores and hobby/bookstores. Year-over-year sales, minus auto, were up just 2.6 percent. 

2013

  • January - Sales were up .1 percent. The biggest contributor ($70.9 billion) continues to be auto sales, a 9.4 percent increase. Another strong contributor ($39 billion) is online sales, up 15.7 percent from January 2012.  Auto sales benefited from record-low interest rates, as did furniture stores, which 3.2 percent over last year. However, this only contributed $8 billion to total U.S. retail sales.
  • February - Sales rose to $421.4 billion, a 1.1 percent increase. Auto sales contributed $71.5 billion, thanks to record-low interest rates. Valentine's Day spending boosted the total by $18.6 billion. This strong growth in retail sales means that consumers are not letting the end of the payroll tax holiday affect their shopping. The holiday was part of Obama's 2010 tax cut, and it was allowed to expire as part of the 2013 fiscal cliff negotiations. Gas station sales, at $47.6 billion, were boosted by high gas prices. 
  • March - Cold weather and lower gas prices forced sales down .3 percent.  The weakness was led by an expected 2.2 percent drop in gasoline station store sales. However, many other categories also declined, including electronic and appliance stores (-1.6 percent), department stores (-1.1 percent) and auto dealers (-.5 percent). No retail category gained 1 percent or more. The strongest was furniture (+.9 percent), miscellaneous retailers (+.8 percent) and restaurants (+.7 percent).
  • April - Sales rose .2 percent thanks to increases in spring-inspired categories. Boosts in clothing (up 1.2 percent), gardening (up 1.5 percent) and sporting goods (up .5 percent) offset a 4.7 percent decline in gas station sales (a result of a seasonal drop in gas prices).Strength in retail sales drove confidence among investors, who had been concerned by softness in the March retail report.
  • May - Up .5 percent, to thanks again to auto sales.
  • June - Up .4 percent, to $422.8 billion, thanks to auto sales. This worried investors, who expected more robust growth. They were concerned that automotive could decline as interest rates move up. They'd like to see more broad-based demand for a wider variety of everyday items. The so-called core retail sales, which excludes the volatile categories of autos, gas and building supplies, rose just 0.15 percent.  As a result, many analysts predicted that slower retail sales meant consumer spending is falling, throwing the recovery off track. Many analysts, such as Goldman Sachs, have revised their estimates down accordingly. However, year-over-year sales were up a robust 4.6 percent. That's important because comparing retail to the same time last year removes the effect of seasonal variation. 
  • July - Sales rose just .2 percent, to $425.4 billion, although core retail sales rose .5 percent. This made investors happy about the July report. Why? Core retail sales exclude the volatile categories of autos, gas and building supplies, saw its largest gain in seven months, compared to just a 0.15 percent increase in June. The core retail sales are seen as a more accurate predictor of consumers' confidence and future shopping habits. This is especially important heading into the all-important holiday shopping season. 
  • August -  Sales rose to $426.6 billion, thanks to financed purchases, not back-to-school.
  • September - Sales dropped .1 percent, thanks to low auto sales over the Labor Day Weekend. The Retail Report was delayed due to the government shutdown.
  • October - Big ticket items drove a .4 percent increase. 
  • November - Auto and building materials pushed sales to 0.7 percent.  It's good that the 15-day government shutdown didn't seem to affect sales as much as it could have. However, it still might. It's left a lingering sense of uncertainty among shoppers. Forecasts for the holiday shopping season are just 3.9 percent and come in lower than predicted. 
  • December - Sales up .2 percent for the month. Worse, it was only up 3.1 percent for the holiday season (October - December) when compared to last year.

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 (GDP), 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

U.S Retail Sales FAQ