Retail sales dip in November as consumers pulled back

Marianne Wilson
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Consumers held back on spending in November as virus rates spiked, states imposed retail restrictions and congressional stimulus discussions were gridlocked.

Retail sales in November fell 0.3% from October, but were up 8.8%. year-over-year, according to the National Retail Federation, compared with a decrease of 0.1% month-over-month in October. (NRF’s calculation of retail sales excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants.)  The November and October drops marked the end of several months of growth in retail spending after sharp declines earlier this year amid the pandemic.

Clothing and clothing accessory stores took the biggest hit in November, with sales down 6.8% month-over-month and down 19.2% year-over-year. (See other category specifics at end of article.) 

The U.S. Census Bureau said that overall retail sales, including automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, in November were down 1.1% from October but up 4.1% year-over-year. That compares with a monthly drop of 0.1% but a yearly gain of 5.5% in October.

“The month-over-month decline isn’t surprising because some spending was pulled forward into October by campaigns encouraging consumers to shop early and shop safe,” stated NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz. “Despite that, as we go into the final weeks of 2020, year-over-year trends show spending is holding up well regardless of month-to-month fluctuations.”

Kleinhenz cautioned that the remainder of the holiday season depends critically on the virus.  

“We are optimistic, but spending could shift into a lower gear if the virus continues to spread,” he said.

Naveen Jaggi, president retail advisory services, JLL, noted that as cities continue to go into new lockdowns and restrictions, “we anticipate shoppers are holding back more than usual, which could mean that they will do an unusual amount of holiday shopping last minute in December.”

On a year-over-year basis, retail sales have increased each month since May under NRF’s calculation and since June under the Census Bureau calculation. Retail sales during the first 11 months of the year were up 6.6%, according to NRF’s calculation.

Specifics from key retail sectors during November are below:

•    Grocery and beverage stores were up 1.6% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 8.5% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Building materials and garden supply stores were up 1.1% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 17.2% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Online and other non-store sales were up 0.2%   month-over-month seasonally adjusted and up 30% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Sporting goods stores were down 0.6% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 14% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Health and personal care stores were down 0.7%   month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 2.6% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    General merchandise stores were down 1% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 1%   unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Furniture and home furnishings stores were down 1.1% month-over-month seasonally adjusted but up 0.4% unadjusted year-over-year.
•    Electronics and appliance stores were down 3.5% month-over-month seasonally adjusted and down 9.9% unadjusted year-over-year.