Predictions cite higher consumer confidence and jobs data as retail growth indicators, but store sales lack spark.

(Bloomberg)—How’s the U.S. consumer doing? The answer depends on whether you ask an economist or a retailer.

Ask most retailers, and the outlook is the shakiest it’s been in years. Just 49% of U.S. retail chains said sales at established locations rose in the second quarter from a year earlier, according to an analysis of 110 companies by research firm Retail Metrics.

That marks the lowest percentage for any quarter since 2009, when the U.S. was digging out from the 2008 global financial crisis. And what sales growth there is hasn’t been so hot—in the past couple of years, sales growth has been stuck in a 1-2% range, according to Retail Metrics president Ken Perkins.

It’s gotten so bad, Bloomberg’s Matt Townsend points out, that retailers are no longer just blaming poor sales on such catastrophes as “unseasonably mild spring weather” and are now adding the upcoming presidential election to their list of reasons why shoppers aren’t coming into their stores.

The downbeat results are at odds with some overwhelmingly rosy predictions for the upcoming holiday season, a critical time that can account for anywhere from 10-30% of a retailer’s sales for the whole year.


The National Retail Federation, which has overshot predictions for the past four years, said last week it expected a 3.6% year-over-year increase in total sales during the months of November and December, with 7-10% gains in nonstore sales (mostly online but including sales by catalog and phone). Other retail prognosticators have similarly upbeat projections, with consultancy Pricewaterhousecoopers pegging year-over-year holiday sales growth at 10%.

Perhaps the disconnect stems from who is preparing these cheery outlooks: Most likely, economists.

Making up roughly two-thirds of U.S. gross domestic product, consumer spending is a closely watched marker for economic growth. Economists looking at Friday’s employment report—showing continued steady job growth—along with accelerating wage increases and recent record-breaking surveys of consumer confidence, might assume consumers are in good spirits.

Shoppers may be happy, but they are also being particularly choosy about where they spend their money.


A quick look at the gap between sales growth at e-commerce retailers (mostly, Inc., No. 1 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide) and sales growth at traditional retailers reveals where some of those dollars are going. Spending increases on health care, housing and travel—along with a relatively inflated savings rate—also explain where some of the money is heading.

Either way, Americans will no doubt whip out their pocketbooks to spend this holiday season. Just don’t expect a like-for-like translation into sales growth for traditional retailers in the coming quarters.