Adobe Analytics says U.S. consumers spent less online in November and December than Adobe and Digital Commerce 360 anticipated. But not much.

The final numbers are in. Retail sales during the 2019 holiday season grew at a healthy—if not blistering—pace. A surge in online sales helped keep spirits bright for some retailers.

Online sales in November and December 2019 totaled $142.50 billion, representing 13.1% growth compared with the same period in 2018, according to data from Adobe Analytics. The final online sales tally was slightly lower than the $143.80 billion (an increase of 14.1%) Adobe projected. Adobe’s online growth estimate was also a bit lower than the 13.5% increase predicted by Digital Commerce 360.

A Digital Commerce 360 estimate says U.S. shoppers spent about as much as expected: $138.65 billion during the holiday season, up 13.6% from $122.00 billion in 2018.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) reported the combination of online and other kinds of non-store sales, like call centers and catalog operations, together reached $167.8 billion during November and December, up 14.6%. That was slightly above the high end of NRF’s forecast of 11% to 14%. Overall holiday retail sales (online and offline) grew 4.1% to $730.20 billion in 2019 over the same period in 2018—which is in line with NRF’s projection of a 3.8% to 4.2% increase, the trade group reported.

The holiday sales numbers “validate continued optimism for increased investment and opportunity in the retail industry,” Matthew Shay, NRF’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “This is a consumer-driven economy, and by any measure, the consumer has put the economy in a solid position for continued growth. This is a strong finish to the holiday season, and we think it’s a positive indicator of what’s ahead,” the statement added.

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Adobe generates its 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.  NRF’s data, which excludes automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants, are based on an analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“In sum, the season was in line with our 4% estimate, and for a short holiday calendar, it was very healthy. With consumers of all ages now comfortable buying online, as expected, online sales were very strong. However, we do expect high rates of returns during January, which could subdue sales gains entering 2020,” says Marie Driscoll, managing director of luxury and fashion at Coresight Research, a research and advisory firm specializing in retail and technology.

For individual retailers, holiday sales results were anything but universally upbeat, although some had a very merry season. The experiences of three big retailers show how mixed the results could be.

Ecommerce giant Amazon.com Inc. (No. 1 in the 2019 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000) was ecstatic about its holiday results. The ecommerce giant says it once again set new sales records, without providing dollar amounts. The record-breaking holiday revenue included sales of the independent third-party retailers that sell on Amazon’s online marketplace. Worldwide, the third-party sellers had double-digit, year-over-year growth and sold more than a billion items on Amazon’s platform, the retailer says.

Like other publicly traded retailers, Amazon reveals specific figures when it releases quarterly results. Amazon expects to announce fourth-quarter results on  Jan. 30. But Amazon revealed some trends that helped lead to the record holiday season. Among them:

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  • More people signed up for the Amazon Prime loyalty program during the 2019 holiday season than in any previous year.
  • The volume of merchandise delivered with Prime free one-day and Prime free same-day delivery nearly quadrupled compared with the same period last holiday season, Amazon says.
  • The number of Prime members who tried grocery delivery for the first time this holiday season increased by more than 80%.

For department store chain Macy’s Inc., the news was less encouraging. On Jan. 8, Macy’s reported comparable store sales in November and December fell by 0.7% compared with the same period in 2018. Comparable sales for licensed departments fell by 0.6%. Macy’s licenses third parties to operate certain departments in its stores and online and receives commissions based on a percentage of third-party net sales.

The statement said Macy’s digital business did well, as did its key stores remodeled under the company’s Growth150 plan to upgrade 150 key stores. The renovations included the addition of new lighting and flooring and renovated fitting rooms and restrooms. Also, the retailer relocated some departments to suit customer traffic better. Macy’s completed work on those stores during the third quarter of 2019.

Macy’s, like Amazon, is publicly traded did not provide specific sales numbers. In 2020, Macy’s plans to close 28 of its namesake stores and one Bloomingdale’s location, according to media reports. The retailer expects to report earnings on Feb. 25.

Another store-based retailer, Target Corp. (No. 16), missed its own expectations for the holiday season. Comparable sales rose just 1.4% in the November-December period, far less than last year’s 5.7% growth. The cheap-chic retailer said the sluggish growth was most pronounced in toys and electronics, which accounted for a higher portion of the company’s business during the holidays and suffered from a lack of must-have items.

Slower digital sales growth and the fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas also contributed to the softness, Target reported. Because Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 28, there were six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas than in 2018, giving consumers less time to shop between the holidays.

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“Despite a late Thanksgiving and worries about tariffs, the consumer didn’t go away. We’ve had months of strong employment numbers, high wages and strong household balance sheets. There’s no doubt that gave consumers a sense of confidence about their ability to spend, and they did their part to keep the economy moving.” Jack Kleinhenz, NRF’s chief economist,  said in a statement.

The bottom line is this: When people have jobs and earn money, they spend it, says Daniel Bachman, U.S. economic forecaster for Deloitte, which provides audit, consulting, tax and advisory services. Near-record-low unemployment rates have helped the 2019 holiday season. But, for Deloitte, it isn’t over yet.  Deloitte defines the holiday season as the period from November through January. For that period, Deloitte projects retail sales to rise 4.5% to 5% and online sales to grow by 14% to 18% on a year-over-year basis.

Holiday spending was “a little soft in November and came back strong in December,” Bachman says. The results so far are “in a tolerable range” compared with Deloitte’s three-month projection, he says.

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