Retail picture brightens: Holiday sales rose 4.1%, NRF reports

A woman shops at Kohl's in November
A woman shops at a Kohl’s store in Las Vegas shortly before Thanksgiving.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

The nation’s largest retail trade group said U.S. holiday sales climbed 4.1%, the top end of its forecast.

The National Retail Federation had expected growth in a range of 3.8% to 4.2% for the November-and-December period. The growth is nearly double the 2.1% growth seen during the holiday 2018 period, which was hurt by a government shutdown, stock market volatility and interest rate hikes.

The holiday figures, announced Thursday, follow a report from the Commerce Department that retail sales rose 0.3% in December from the previous month. Excluding sales at car dealers and gas stations, the sales rose 0.5%, the biggest increase in five months.

Shoppers have become the primary driver of the economy’s growth as businesses have reined in their investment in machinery and equipment and exports have slowed.

Still, economists said the positive December figure was partially offset by downward revisions to October and November sales. That suggests consumer spending grew more slowly in the final three months of last year than previously expected.


Overall, though, the results offer a dose of optimism for the retail industry. Retailers have benefited from a strong economy and a tight job market, but many are struggling to adjust to shoppers’ increasing shift to buying online. They’re also battling the increasing dominance of online behemoth Inc.

Several large stores including Kohl’s Corp. and Macy’s Inc. have reported disappointing holiday sales. Target Corp., which has been on a winning streak, also reported a shortfall in its holiday business. A fuller picture of how consumers spent will be known next month, when retailers report their fourth-quarter results.

“This is a strong finish to the holiday season, and we think it’s a positive indicator of what’s ahead,” Matthew Shay, president and chief executive of the National Retail Federation, said in a statement.

The numbers exclude sales from automobile dealers, gas stations and restaurants.

Online and other non-store sales were up 14.6% over the same period the prior year and are included in the total.

The retail group’s forecast considers economic indicators such as consumer credit, disposable personal income and monthly retail sales.