January retail sales clouded by worst December in 9 years
In a report that was late due to the recent government shutdown, the U.S. Commerce Department on Monday said that core retail sales rose 0.2% in January from December. Non-store sales (mostly e-commerce) rose 2.6% month over month, according to the report.
The agency also revised December's monthly retail decline (previously measured at 1.2%) to a 1.6% drop. That was the worst retail sales performance since December 2009, according to comments emailed to Retail Dive from Wells Fargo Senior Economist Tim Quinlan.
The National Retail Federation Monday released its own analysis of the government numbers, finding that retail sales excluding automobile dealers, gas stations and restaurants in January rose 1.3% (seasonally adjusted) from December and 3.6% (unadjusted) year over year, according to a press release.
Several retailers reported a surprising drop in traffic and sales in late December — at Shoptalk last week Nordstrom co-President Erik Nordstrom said the retailer couldn't figure out why they slacked off after brisk business following Thanksgiving.
Sales picked up in January, although not enough to make up for the previous month's tumble. As always, some retailers fared better than others, according to the government report. Month over month, January furniture and home sales fell 1.2%, electronics sales fell 0.3%, clothing and accessories fell 1.3%, while sporting goods, hobby and bookstore sales rose 4.8%, and department store sales rose 0.1%.
NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz downplayed the government's downward revision for December, saying, "these figures remain suspect given the reporting delays caused by the government shutdown" and suggested that the January numbers only add to his doubts.
"The January rebound further calls into question the accuracy and reliability of the December data," he said in a statement. "The processing of the delayed data is still unclear, and the volatility of the figures reported is difficult to explain at this point."
But Wells Fargo's Quinlan sees it as wariness on the part of the U.S. consumer, noting that other perspectives on retail sales, including the so-called "control group" that excludes food, autos, gas and building materials and is widely seen as a useful stand-in for domestic consumption and GDP, are even more grim. "The 2.3% drop in December control group sales was the largest decline since 2000," he wrote. "That would be alarming were it not for the significant 1.1% rebound for this category in January, an increase that matched the largest increase since February 2014."
Quinlan noted that late-December stock volatility probably shook consumer confidence. But, like Kleinhenz, who said higher wages should help bolster sales in coming weeks, Quinlan doesn't see long-term trouble. "The stock market swoon last year was a big hit to household wealth, but the rebound more recently assuages that somewhat," he wrote. "First quarter spending is dented. ... But in our view this is not the beginning of a serious retrenchment in which consumers go into hiding."
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