U.S. retail sales rose at a solid pace last month, evidence that Americans were willing to spend during the winter holidays after a sluggish November.
The Commerce Department said retail sales increased 0.3 percent in December from the previous month. Excluding sales at car dealers and gas stations, sales rose 0.5 percent, the best in five months.
Low unemployment and widespread hiring are fueling consumer confidence. Shoppers have become the primary driver of the economy’s growth as businesses have reined in their investment in machinery and equipment and exports have slowed.
Still, economists said the positive December figures were partially offset by downward revisions to October and November sales. That suggests consumer spending likely grew more slowly in the final three months of last year than previously expected.
“The December numbers look good in isolation, but they are tempered by downward revisions to prior data,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said.
Holiday shopping got off to a slow start in November, with sales excluding autos and gas actually dropping 0.2 percent. But sales rose in December at electronics and appliance stores, home and garden centers, grocery stores, and clothing shops.
Department stores reported a sharp 0.8 percent drop in sales for the second straight month, as Americans appear to be avoiding older chains. They were the only broad category other than autos to report lower sales last month.
Last year also saw shopping patterns continue to shift. Sales in a category that mostly includes online retailers soared 19.2 percent in 2019, nearly quadruple the 5.8 percent rise in overall sales. Online sales increased 0.2 percent in December.
Many large retailers reported disappointing results for the winter holidays. J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, Macy’s, and L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, all reported sales declines, though Macy’s drop was less than many Wall Street analysts expected.
Target spooked much of the retail industry this week when it reported a rare shortfall in holiday sales, which rose just 1.4 percent in November and December, down from a robust 5.7 percent a year earlier.
Auto sales fell 1.3 percent last month, the biggest decline in nearly a year, but rose a solid 4.1 percent in 2019.
Gas station sales jumped 2.8 percent in December, but the gasoline and other retail sales figures are not adjusted for price changes.