Total retail sales increased 2.1% year over year last month, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Despite the slowdown in the first half of the holiday season, economists aren't worried about a disappointing performance in December.

U.S. nonstore retail sales grew at the slowest year-over-year rate for November in six years, according to a Digital Commerce 360 (formerly Internet Retailer) analysis of U.S. Department of Commerce advance monthly figures released Friday. Total spend through all channels missed forecasts—a potential signal of a slowdown in the holiday-centric Q4—but some economists caution against reading too much into the weaker retail report, as the calendar played a role in November’s performance, and other economic indicators remain strong.

Nonstore sales—a proxy measure for ecommerce performance—increased 7.2% this November from the same period in 2018, when growth measured 11.8%. This was the lowest registered year-over-year growth for November since 2013, when nonstore spending rose a paltry 0.3%. November’s nonstore performance also marks a drastic drop from October’s year-over-year growth, which revised Commerce Department figures show reached 14.0%, and ranks as the lowest year-over-year growth for any month so far in 2019.

Sales in the nonstore retail category–which are mainly online but include other sales such as orders through call centers, catalogs, door-to-door visits and vending machines–don’t align perfectly with spending captured in the pure ecommerce figures that the Commerce Department releases quarterly. But the data is an early indicator of trends in the online sector.

Digital Commerce 360 analyzes non-seasonally adjusted Commerce Department data and excludes sales in segments that don’t typically sell items online such as restaurants, bars, automobile dealers, gas stations and fuel dealers. Advance monthly numbers are preliminary figures that aren’t broken out with the same level of granularity as finalized published sales, so Digital Commerce 360 analyzes historical data to estimate fuel’s share of the nonstore category. More robust data for November will be released in mid-January.

Even after excluding a Digital Commerce 360 estimate for fuel sales from the nonstore spending data, November’s year-over-year growth remained the same at 7.2%, down from an 11.7% jump during the same month in 2018 and also down from 15.4% in October 2019.

advertisement

In November, nonstore sales represented nearly three-quarters—73.6%—of all retail gains, or 72.9% when excluding the estimated sales of fuel. Total retail sales through all channels increased 2.1% year over year last month, or 2.0% without fuel. Either rate is around half of the year-over-year growth in retail spend during both October 2019 and November 2018, when jumps were in the low- to mid-4.0% range.

Last month, total retail sales for department stores dropped 9.4% year over year, and overall revenue for clothing and accessories stores dipped 2.9%. According to the Commerce Department, retailers selling in several other merchandise categories—including electronics and appliance as well as health and personal care stores—also saw revenue shrink.

No cause for concern

While the Commerce Department November readings were slightly weaker than expected across a number of categories, “we’re not taking any strong signal from this report,” says Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at investment bank and financial services firm Barclays Plc.

“We did expect private consumption to decelerate in the fourth quarter off its previous pace, so this is in line with what we were expecting in terms of direction,” says Gapen, who previously worked for the Federal Reserve Board as well as the International Monetary Fund. “Looking to 2020, labor markets seem to be holding up just fine, and income growth is still quite solid.”

The National Retail Federation also is optimistic that more holiday spending is to come and points to a couple of explanations for last month’s seemingly low numbers.

advertisement

“November showed modest growth on the surface, but you have to remember that the late timing of Thanksgiving delayed the beginning of the busiest portion of the holiday season and pushed Cyber Monday’s billions of dollars of retail sales into December,” says Jack Kleinhenz, NRF’s chief economist. “These numbers are more about the calendar than consumer confidence.”

He also notes that an unusually strong showing in November last year made a year-over-year comparison challenging in 2019. At the same time, the reverse scenario played out in December 2018, when total sales declined 0.2%—both including and excluding fuel—from the same month the previous year. This makes it likely that December 2019 will “show a strong comparison,” Kleinhenz says.

For the month of November, Digital Commerce 360 estimates total retail sales excluding fuel hit $337.13 billion and nonstore sales excluding fuel reached $72.23 billion. According to Adobe Analytics, the data insights arm of software firm Adobe Inc., ecommerce revenue alone crossed $68.00 billion in November. The firm’s numbers are based on data from more than 1 trillion visits to more than 4,500 retail sites including transactions from 80 of the top 100 U.S. online retailers ranked in the 2019 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000.

Adobe’s online sales data suggests that ecommerce penetration reached 20.2% in the month of November as shoppers took to retail sites in greater numbers for holiday shopping. This is up from 15.5% in Q3, according to Commerce Department figures.

Adobe expects that the five-day period between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday—coined Cyber 5—will account for about 20.0% of online sales during the holidays. With nearly half—$13.25 billion—of the weekend’s $28.49 billion in ecommerce revenue spilling into December this year, according to Adobe, the tail end of the year is off to a good start.

advertisement

The firm projects online sales will hit $143.7 billion for the holiday season, which it defines as November through December, and that would be a 14.0% increase from $126.00 billion for the same period in 2018. From Nov. 1 through Dec. 8, shoppers have spent $97.1 billion on retail sites, according to Adobe. If the group’s estimate pans out, this would mean more than two-thirds of the season’s ecommerce spending is completed through just the first week in December.

Despite the November slowdown, the NRF hasn’t revised its optimistic holiday sales projections. The group still expects total retail sales for November and December to reach between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion, up 3.8%-4.2% from the same period in 2018. The NRF also predicts ecommerce and other nonstore sales will reach between $162.6 billion and $166.9 billion, an 11.0%-14.0% uptick from $146.5 billion during the holidays last year.

“Consumer spending has been solid, and there’s still a lot of spending to be done,” Kleinhenz says. “With strong employment and higher wages, we’re on track for a strong holiday season.”

In spite of November’s deceleration in growth, for the first 11 months of the year, nonstores sales increased a robust 12.9% excluding fuel, according to Commerce Department data. This is the highest nonstore 11-month rate in more than a decade. Year-to-date growth in total retail sales excluding fuel dipped to 3.6% for January through November 2019, down from 4.6% for the comparable period in 2018.

Bloomberg contributed to this article.

advertisement
Favorite