1. News & Issues

What Are U.S. Retail Sales?

Current Trends and How It's Measured

By

retail sales

Holiday shopping drives 20% of each year's retail sales.

Photo: Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

Question: What Are U.S. Retail Sales?

Answer: U.S. retail sales measure the demand for goods and services sold as an end product to consumers or businesses. It doesn't include wholesale sales used to create other goods or services. Retail sales data predicts economic growth trends because consumer spending is 70% of total U.S. economic output.

Exactly What's Measured in Retail Sales?

U.S. retail sales data are reported monthly by the Census Bureau. It reports on sales for both the most recent month and the last 12 months. The Bureau surveys 5,000 firms each month. The Bureau summarizes the report into 13 retail categories, including:
  1. Non-store retailers, which is essentially Internet retail sales.
  2. Auto dealers.
  3. Clothing stores.
  4. Electronics and appliance stores.
  5. Department stores.
  6. Food and beverage stores. This includes grocery stores.
  7. Building and garden supply stores.
  8. Sporting goods/hobby stores.
  9. Health/beauty stores.
  10. Furniture stores.
  11. Restaurants.
  12. Gas stations. (Source: Census Bureau, How Surveys Are Collected)

The most important thing to remember when reviewing the retail sales report is that the Census Bureau doesn't adjust for inflation. Therefore, volatile gas and oil prices can make it seem like retail sales are skyrocketing (usually in the spring, when gas prices rise) or dropping like a stone (usually in the late summer or fall, when gas prices drop).

Components of Retail Sales

The largest category of retail sales (20%) is auto and auto parts stores. Department and discount stores comprise 13%, while grocery stores are slightly less. Gas stations and restaurants are slightly less than 10% each. Apparel stores and drugstores come in at 5% each. Furniture stores and consumer electronics are around 2.5% each.

The most critical time of the year in retail sales is the holiday shopping season, which starts the day after Thanksgiving. Nearly 20% of retail sales occur from Black Friday through Christmas.

Can Retail Sales Data Help Predict Economic Growth?

Since retail sales are reported monthly, you can use them (somewhat) to predict economic growth. That's because U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is reported only quarterly. However, keep in mind that the retail sales report doesn't adjust for inflation, while GDP does. Also, 20% of annual retail sales occur during the holiday season. However, if you look at the comparison below, you'll see it doesn't do a great job. Nevertheless, it will give you a sense if you also look at business orders for durable goods and other economic indicators.

Current U.S. Retail Sales Data

This is the most recent retail sales data from the U.S. Census. The links will take you back to blog posts written at the time. These will give you a sense of how retail sales affected the economy then. The data in the post reflects the earliest U.S. Census estimates. The data on this page gives you the most recent and accurate data.

2014

  • March - Sales rose a welcome 1.1%, boosted by automobiles.
  • February - Online shoppers helped push sales up .3%.
  • January - Sales were down .4%, and not because of the weather

2013

  • December - Sales up .2% for the month. Worse, it was only up 3.1% for the holiday season (October - December) when compared to last year.
  • November - Auto and building materials pushed sales to .7%.
  • October - Big ticket items drove a .4% increase.
  • September - Sales dropped .1%, thanks to low auto sales over the Labor Day Weekend. The Retail Report was delayed due to the government shutdown.
  • August -  Sales rose to $426.6 billion, thanks to financed purchases.
  • July - Sales rose just .2%, to $425.4 billion, although core retail sales rose .5%.
  • June - Up .4%, to $422.8 billion, thanks to auto sales.
  • May - Up .5%, to thanks again to auto sales.
  • April - Sales rose .2% thanks to spring purchases of clothing and garden supplies.
  • Q1: Sales were up 1.1%, to $1.117 trillion. GDP growth was 1.8%.
  • March - Cold weather and lower gas prices forced sales down .3%.
  • February - Valentine's Day and auto sales helped boost sales to $421.4 billion, a 1.1% increase.
  • January - Sales were up .1%.

2012

Estimated retail sales were $4.9 trillion, 5.03% better than 2011, helping to drive economic growth up a healthy 2.2%.(Source: My own calculations from U.S. Census raw data. Retail Sales Spreadsheet).

  • Q4: The holiday drove retail sales up 1.4% ($1.105 trillion), but GDP only grew .4%.
  • December - The all-important holiday sales season was just .3% higher than November, but 4.7% higher than the previous year.
  • November - Retail sales rose .4%, totaling $412.4 billion. The impact of Hurricane Sandy was mixed.
  • October - Sales were absolutely flat, but not because of Hurricane Sandy.
  • Q3: Retail sales rose 1.3% (to $1.09 trillion) helping drive GDP up 3.1%.
  • September - Sales jumped a robust 1.1%.
  • August - High gas prices drove retail sales up 1.2%.
  • July - Sales rose .7%.
  • Q2: Retail sales gained just .1% (to $1.08 trillion), while GDP grew 1.3%.
  • June - Sales fell .9%.
  • May - Sales were .2% lower than in April, but that's because of lower gasoline prices. Gas station sales were 2.2% lower, as consumers spent $1 billion less at the pump. If this were taken out of the statistics, sales would have actually gone up .1%.
  • April's sales .3% lower than in March, again because of declining gas prices.
  • Q1: Retail sales were up 1.6% (to $1.075 trillion) and GDP grew 2%.
  • March retail sales were a new record, at $406.2 billion. This was 7.2% above the previous high set before the recession. That was $378.9 billion, set in December 2007. Compared to February, sales were up .7%.
  • February - Sales rose 1.3%.
  • Janaury - Sales only grew .1%, as consumers paid their holiday bills. (Source: Census Department, Estimated Quarterly U.S. Retail Sales, and Monthly Retail Sales; Current GDP Statistics)

Retail Sales Trends During the Recession

Retail sales were $4.6 trillion in 2011, the highest in history. (most recent annual data available from the Census. This cannot be compared to the raw retail sales estimates above.) It's better than the pre-recession high of $4.444 trillion spent in 2007. It's a 7% increase over the $4.3 trillion spent in 2010, which itself was up 5.6% from 2009's record low of $4.082 trillion. (Source: Census Bureau, Annual Retail Sales Seasonally Adjusted)

U.S Retail Sales FAQ

 

  1. About.com
  2. News & Issues
  3. US Economy
  4. Demand
  5. What Are U.S. Retail Sales?

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.