Economists' Outlook

Housing stats and analysis from NAR's research experts.

Instant Reaction: Retail Trade Sales, January 15, 2021

December 2020 seasonally-adjusted advance estimates of United States retail and food service sales decreased from November sales figures as anticipated and represents the 3rd consecutive month of decreasing sales. Retail and food service sales are estimated at $540.9 billion, which is a 0.7% decrease from prior month figures as consumers avoid brick-and-mortar locations amid rising virus cases. But sales were up 2.9% year-over-year.

Retail trade sales declined 0.3% from the prior month but were up 6.3% from the same period a year ago. Retail trade sales declined in December for the 3rd consecutive month, but was up year-to-date (January 2020 – December 2020) 3.2% from 2019 as consumers continue to utilize online shopping, order deliveries online, and click-and-collect.

The holiday season, which is typically November-December was modified for 2020 as retailers pulled the shopping season forward by running promotions sooner. With many retailers offering sales in October, the 2020 holiday shopping season was from October-December. Retail sales for that period exceeded many forecasts as holiday shopping season sales grew 7.0% year-over-year in spite of the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

As previously mentioned in other articles, it's best to never count out the consumer as the consumer displayed tremendous perseverance notwithstanding unprecedented obstacles as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Regardless of increasing COVID cases, local and state lockdowns, and economic and political uncertainty, 2020 holiday shopping sales indicate that consumers were going to make the best of the holidays and spend funds on products/gifts that brought some feeling of normalcy to a year like no other.

With many consumers continuing to use online shopping throughout the year and during the holiday shopping season, the October-December holiday shopping season saw non-store retailers grow significantly at 24% year-over-year against the same period in 2019. The last month of the holiday shopping season (December) saw non-store retailers up 19.2% year-over-year, but down 5.8% from the prior month. Following non-store retailers, sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument, and book stores recorded 15.2% year-over-year. Miscellaneous store retailers, general merchandise stores, health and personal care stores, food and beverage stores, building material, and garden equipment and supplies dealers, furniture and home furniture stores, and motor vehicle and parts dealers were up as well.

Department stores continued their downward trend for December and closed the year without a positive year-over-year increase. Department stores recorded the largest decrease among all industries with a 21.4% decrease year-over-year for the month of December. Food services and drinking places record the second largest year-over-year decrease for December, estimated at a reduction of 21.2% year-over-year.