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

Falling Gas Prices Weaken Retail Sales in June

retail sales
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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 0.7% in July 2019, according to the U.S. Census Department. Growth was bolstered by a 2.8% rise in online sales. Restaurant sales increased by 1.1%.

Gas station sales rose by 1.8%. The Census Bureau doesn't adjust its statistics for inflation. Over the past year, gas prices have fallen despite OPEC's promise to keep a floor under oil prices. Oil prices drive 71% of gas prices. The latest oil price forecast is for a continued suppression of high oil prices.

Department store sales rose by 1.2%. Department store sales were down 5.5% since last year. That's due to strong competition from online retailers. Their sales were up 14.2% over last year.

Year-over-year retail sales were up 3.3%. A robust economy will generate annual retail sales growth of 3% or more. Most of that was due to stronger online sales, and growth in restaurant sales.

Retail sales signal trends in consumer spending. That drives almost 70% of economic growth. In addition to retail, personal consumption expenditures include services, like housing and health care. 

Recent Trends 

Retail sales hit a record of $6 trillion in 2018, according to the U.S. Census. That's better than the pre-recession high of $4.4 trillion spent in 2007. It's also a 50% increase from 2009's record low of $4.06 trillion. 

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

Online retail has grown 300% between 2000 and 2018, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. During the same time period, department store sales have dropped almost 50%.

In 2019, 5,994 stores closed in the first three months. That compares to 5,864 for all of 2018. The hardest-hit were Payless, Gymboree, and Charlotte Russe.

Although shoppers will never wholly 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 aren't as eager to build new stores. That hurts commercial real estate, neighborhood shopping centers, and jobs. 

Amazon Go is a brick-and-mortar store offered by the world's largest online retailer. It could change the retail experience. There are no checkout lines or cash exchanged. The store is monitored by computer vision, sensor fusion, and artificial intelligence. Payments are automatically made by the customer's Amazon account using an app. But many cities are banning cashless stores. They say the stores discriminate against low-income customers who may not have bank accounts.

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 printer maker Shapeways to produce favorite toys. 

The second is a change in consumer spending. The recession forced many people back to school to improve their job prospects. As a result, education loans rose while credit card use dropped. 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. 

Off-price retailers are booming at the expense of department stores. Chains like Marshalls, T.J. Maxx, and Ross Stores have higher profit margins than Macy's and Dillards. That's because they are taking their customers and market share. 

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.

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 that news comes out. Keep in mind that the retail sales report doesn't adjust for inflation, while GDP does. 

About 20% of annual retail sales occur during the holiday season.

That means you must look at year-over-year retail sales. GDP is an annualized number. 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

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

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