Over the past week, the welter of holiday trading updates has hinted that retailers enjoyed a robust December. Today’s strong retail sales numbers lend weight to that view.
At total level, year-over-year growth of 4% in December does not seem all that impressive. Indeed, it is a little way below the average monthly rate for 2017 and quite a bit below the 6.6% uplift recorded in November.
However, the figure is affected by weak sales of autos which were up by only 0.4% over the prior year. When this, and other non-core categories are removed, pure retail sales increased by 4.6%. This represents a significant increase over the average monthly 3.8% uplift for 2017 and puts December as the third best month for retail growth of the year.
Growth within retail was broad-based with most categories performing well. Home and furniture stores led the way with 7.5% growth over the prior year. Some of this is a consequence of a robust housing market, which continues to spur home spending, but some is also the result of more gifting of home products. Our consumer data showed that small home-related items like decor and accessories were one of the most popular gifting categories this holiday season.
Electronics, which has been relatively flat for most of 2017, ended the year with a flourish. The 5.7% growth rate the category enjoyed is largely thanks to a much better line up of consumer electronics products, including the latest iPhones and a host of new Amazon devices. Strong promotional activity, especially on products like home speakers, stimulated consumer interest and drove volume across many retailers.
Notably, both home and electronics are categories where individual items can be expensive. That they did well underlines the fact that consumer confidence across the period was very strong. Our weekly tracker shows consumers ended the year on a high for sentiment about their household finances and the economy in general. This was extremely helpful in driving trade over the holiday period.
Smaller ticket sectors like clothing did reasonably well, although growth of 1.1% puts the sector near the bottom of the holiday league table. Given that the cold weather was mostly helpful to retailers over December, the issue in apparel is that consumers are bored with offers that appear samey and undifferentiated and so they are not driven to buy. This, in turn, leads to excessive discounting which reduces sales values and growth.
In keeping with its status across most of 2017, sporting goods remained a challenged part of the market with sales declining by 1.5% on a year-over-year basis. Except for Lululemon and a few other players, there was a lack of inspiration and excitement in the segment this holiday which made it easy for consumers already saturated with sports apparel and footwear to either shun making purchases or to do so at generalist players like department stores.
After a strong end to the year, all eyes now turn to 2018. From a confidence point of view, the year has started well with consumer optimism rising further. In our opinion, bonuses and raises which have come off the back of the tax cuts will likely support spending through the early months of the year. Growth may drop back from holiday levels but will remain above average.