It was a solid holiday retail sales season in 2019, at least on paper: According to the National Retail Federation, sales were up 4.1% over the same period in 2018 to $730.2 billion. The U.S. Census Bureau, meanwhile, also reported a year-over-year increase.
But analysts and consultants aren’t quite ready to spike the football and commence with an end-zone dance.
“It’s too early to call from a sales perspective,” Charles O’Shea, VP and Retail Analyst at Moody’s, tells Adweek. He says there isn’t enough information on profit margins, so it’s unknown how much retailers marked down goods to drive sales. “All we’re seeing are revenue numbers, which are pretty high,” O’Shea said. “But what did retailers pay to generate those sales?”
On their face, the numbers paint a picture of a robust U.S. economy, with retail bottom lines powered by active American consumers. The Census Bureau says in advance estimates that December retail and food service sales grew 5.7% to almost $530 billion over the same year-ago period. The agency’s numbers say retail sales were up 0.3% to almost $528 billion.
“This was a healthy holiday season, especially compared with the decline in retail sales we saw at the end of the season in 2018,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a news release. “Despite a late Thanksgiving and worries about tariffs, the consumer didn’t go away. We’ve had months of strong employment numbers, high wages and strong household balance sheets. There’s no doubt that gave consumers a sense of confidence about their ability to spend, and they did their part to keep the economy moving.”
Results reported by individual retailers are all over the map so far. Department stores like Kohl’s and JCPenney, for example, have reported lower results. Target also posted underwhelming top-line numbers. Specialty retailers like Lululemon are showing growth.
“I do see a mixed picture,” Andrea Weiss, co-founder of The O Alliance and CEO of Retail Consulting, tells Adweek. “We’re somewhere on the transformation continuum. Everyone has to realize that we’re not on a quarter-to-quarter timeline.” Weiss says the outlook should be focused on the long-term.
Breaking down retail sales year-over-year by category, the NRF says grocery and beverage increased 2.9%; furniture and home furnishings were up 2.6%; and health and personal care stores grew by 1.6%. Building materials and garden supply store sales ticked 1% higher, while sales for general merchandise and sporting goods each grew by 0.4%.
Clothing and accessories store sales fell 1.6%, while electronics and appliances sales declined 2%.