Retail Sales

Retail sales remain the heartbeat of consumer activity

It is well known that retail sales represent somewhere around two-thirds of all economic activity, and that U.S. retail sales contribute around 14 percent, or $2.6 trillion, to U.S. GDP. That is a major number and clearly cannot be overlooked, especially when looking at how closely connected retail and consumer activity is tied to the freight transportation and logistics sectors on so many fronts, including trucking, intermodal, parcel, ocean, air, and e-commerce

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · April 14, 2017

It seems like there are certain times in the month where the data dives come fast and furious. A quick look at the “top news” section of the LM website today, Friday, April 14, proves that point, with data-driven stories on West Coast port volumes and U.S.-bound waterborne shipments, and yesterday’s story on U.S. retail container shipments.

If you thought that was enough copy along those lines, I would say you are correct, but there is one more item to cover, and that one is U.S. retail sales for the month of March.

It is well known that retail sales represent somewhere around two-thirds of all economic activity, and that U.S. retail sales contribute around 14 percent, or $2.6 trillion to U.S. GDP. That is a major number and clearly cannot be overlooked, especially when looking at how closely connected retail and consumer activity is tied to the freight transportation and logistics sectors on so many fronts, including trucking, intermodal, parcel, ocean, air, and e-commerce.

With that as a backdrop, here is the final data dive of the day, as it relates to March retail sales.

First, there is data from the United States Department of Commerce, whom reported today that March retail sales, at $470.8 billion, were down 0.2 percent compared to February and were up 5.2 percent compared to March 2016. Commerce said total retail sales for January through March, otherwise known as the first quarter, were up 5.4 percent compared to the first quarter of 2016.

And retail trade sales in March, where malls are prevalent, dropped 0.2 percent annually in March, whereas nonstore retailers, or e-commerce, were up 11.9 percent. That makes sense, as has been the case for several months, with more and more consumers avoiding the mall and shopping online.

Along with the Department of Commerce, the National Retail Federation (NRF) also issued its March retail sales data, which saw that March sales saw a slight 0.3 percent increase compared to February and a 3.5 percent unadjusted annual increase, with these numbers excluding automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants.

On a three-month average, NRF said that retail sales are up 2.8 percent annually.

Like the data from Commerce, e-commerce, or non-store sales were trending in the right direction, with sales up 0.6 percent compared to February and up 11.4 percent annually on an unadjusted basis. And sales at general merchandise stores, or malls, rose 0.3 percent over February on a seasonally-adjusted basis and flat annually.

NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz put the NRF data into perspective in a blog posting, saying “Various factors were at play in the first quarter, but we are again seeing a pattern similar to previous years — consumer spending was weak but is expected to pick up as we move through the year. A lack of pricing power continues to plague the retail industry,” Kleinhenz said, noting that Consumer Price Index numbers released today showed prices reversing course in March. There is no doubt that weak pricing power led to the bumpy period for retailers in the first part of this year.”

A research note from IHS Markit explained that retail sales fell in March due to a pullback by American consumers at automobile dealerships, furniture, building material, sporting goods stores, and restaurants, adding that overall retail sales were substantially weaker than previously thought for February, implying that consumers have pulled backed in the first quarter of the year despite elevated levels of consumer confidence.

But on the positive side it added that this weak showing of consumer spending in the first quarter is likely temporary, citing how healthy gains in employment, real disposable income, and household wealth will continue to fuel consumer spending. IHS Markit said it expects real consumption growth should hit a 2.7%-3.1% annual rate for the remaining quarters of 2017.

In March, the NRF announced its 2017 retail sales projections from, which called for an annual gain in the 3.7-to-4.2 percent range, with online and other non-store/online sales (which NRF includes in its over all number) to head up between 8 and 12 percent.While not a direct comparison, NRF’s 2017 projection would top the 3.3 percent annual gain in retail sales from 2015 to 2016, based on data issued by the United States Department of Commerce.

And as previously reported, the NRF offered up various data points supporting its thesis for retail sales growth in 2017, including:

  • -the economy is expected to gain an average of approximately 160,000 jobs a month, which it said is down slightly from 2016 but consistent with labor market growth;
  • -unemployment is expected to drop to 4.6 percent by the end of the year; and
  • -economic growth is likely to be in the range of 1.9 to 2.4 percent

Retail sales data can obviously be interpreted, sliced, and diced many different ways, but at the end of the day it remains a crucial data point that needs to be monitored and closely watched. Freight and logistics interests more often than not keep it top of mind and that is not something that is likely to change anytime soon.

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