Retail Sales in U.S. Decrease to End Weakest Year Since 2009

U.S. Retail Sales Disappoint, Weakest Since 2009
  • Sales excluding automobiles and gas were little changed
  • Unexpected decline in retail control group that feeds into GDP

Sales at U.S. retailers declined in December to wrap the weakest year since 2009, raising concern about the momentum in consumer spending heading into 2016.

The 0.1 percent drop matched the median forecast of 84 economists surveyed by Bloomberg and followed a 0.4 percent gain in November, Commerce Department figures showed Friday in Washington. For all of 2015, purchases climbed 2.1 percent, the smallest advance of the current economic expansion.

The slowdown, including electronics stores, clothing merchants and grocers, indicates Americans probably preferred to sock away the savings from cheaper fuel instead of splurging during the holiday season. While hiring has been robust in recent months, faster wage gains remain elusive, one reason household spending may have a tougher time accelerating as the new year gets under way.

“There isn’t anything encouraging in this report,” said Thomas Simons, a money-market economist at Jefferies Group LLC in New York. “It’s very disappointing. The labor market is in good shape, which suggests the outlook is probably better than this.”

Estimates in the Bloomberg survey for retail sales ranged from a decline of 1 percent to a 0.3 percent advance. The November tally was revised up from a previously reported 0.2 percent increase.

Weak 2015

The increase for all of 2015 followed a 3.9 percent gain the prior year. It was the smallest advance since demand slumped 7.4 percent in 2009, when the recession ended in June of that year.

A separate report from the Labor Department showed inflation remained contained at the wholesale level. The producer price index decreased 0.2 percent in December from the prior month and was down 1 percent year-over-year.

The retail sales report showed six of 13 major categories showed declines in demand in December from the prior month, with a 1 percent slump at general merchandise stores that was the biggest since February, the report showed.

Receipts at gasoline stations dropped 1.1 percent. The Commerce Department’s retail sales data aren’t adjusted for prices, so lower fuel costs depress filling-station receipts.

Regular gasoline at the pump has dropped to a seven-year low, falling below $2 a gallon this week to reach $1.93 on Thursday, according to AAA, the biggest U.S. motoring group.

Clothing, Electronics

The retail report also showed sales decreased 0.9 percent at clothing chains and 0.2 percent at electronics stores.

Automobile dealers’ sales were little changed.

Industry figures earlier this month showed purchases of cars and light trucks came in at a 17.2 million annualized rate in December, the slowest since July, after an 18 million pace the prior month, according to Ward’s Automotive Group. Even so, industry sales data shows 2015 was a record year for automakers.

The figures used to calculate gross domestic product, which exclude categories such as food services, auto dealers, home-improvement stores and service stations, unexpectedly dropped 0.3 percent, the biggest decrease since February, after the prior month’s 0.5 percent increase in the so-called retail control group that was smaller than previously estimated.

Warm December

Warmer than usual weather last month probably curtailed purchases of winter gear including clothing. This was the warmest December on record for the contiguous U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Some economists may lower estimates for fourth-quarter gross domestic product and consumer spending following the retail sales results. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey shows household purchases rose at a 2.2 percent annualized rate from October through December, after a 3 percent pace in the prior three months.

Recent reports had signaled the November-December holiday season was a mixed one for retailers. Same-store sales fell in the two months for chains ranging from Macy’s Inc. to Best Buy Co. while those who snagged an increase included J.C. Penney Co. Same-store sales for the industry as a whole account for about 17 percent of total retail sales, which make up almost half of consumer spending.

Beige Book

“Growth of consumer spending ranged from slight to moderate in most Districts,” according to the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book economic survey based on reports from late November to early January by regional Fed banks. “Auto sales were somewhat mixed, as activity has begun to drop off from previously high levels in some Districts.”

Employers added 292,000 workers in December and payrolls for the previous two months were revised higher, the Labor Department reported last week. The jobless rate held at a more than seven-year low of 5 percent. Wages stagnated, with average hourly earnings unchanged from November and up 2.5 percent from a year earlier. They’ve been in the 2 percent range since the expansion began in 2009.

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