Despite a rise in sales at US clothing retailers over the key Christmas trading period, holiday season sales grew at a lower-than-expected rate in 2018 as worries over the trade war and turmoil in the stock markets impacted consumer behaviour more than expected, new figures show. 

For the months of November and December, US holiday sales increased 2.9% year-on-year to US$707.5bn, according to figures from the National Retail Federation (NRF).

The numbers, which excludes restaurants, automobile dealers and gasoline stations, includes $146.8bn in online and other non-store sales, which were up 11.5% over the year before.

Sales at clothing and accessories stores increased 4.2% to $61.7bn year-over-year, while sporting goods stores were down 13.5%.

The results fell short of NRF’s forecast last autumn that holiday sales from November through December would grow between 4.3% and 4.8% to between $717.45bn and $720.89bn. The retail group had forecast that the online sector of retail would grow between 11-15% to between $151.6bn and $157bn.

November – the first half of the holiday season – grew 5.1% unadjusted year-over-year. But December edged up by just 0.9% year-over-year and was down 1.5% on a seasonally-adjusted basis from November. NRF does not count October as part of the holiday season, but much holiday shopping has shifted earlier, and October was up 5.7% year-over-year.

As of December, the three-month moving average was up 0.7% over the same period a year ago.

“All signs during the holidays seemed to show that consumers remained confident about the economy,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said. “However, it appears that worries over the trade war and turmoil in the stock markets impacted consumer behaviour more than we expected. There’s also a question of whether the government shutdown and resulting delay in collecting data might have made the results less reliable. It’s very disappointing that clearly avoidable actions by the government influenced consumer confidence and unnecessarily depressed December retail sales.”

NRF’s numbers are based on data from the US Census Bureau, which said yesterday (14 February) that overall December sales – including auto dealers, gas stations and restaurants – were down 1.2% seasonally adjusted from November but up 2.3% unadjusted year-over-year.

“Today’s numbers are truly a surprise and in contradiction to the consumer spending trends we were seeing, especially after such strong October and November spending,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz added. “The combination of financial market volatility, the government shutdown and trade tensions created a trifecta of anxiety and uncertainty impacting spending and might also have misaligned the seasonal adjustment factors used in reporting data. This is an incomplete story and we will be in a better position to judge the reliability of the results when the government revises its 2018 data in the coming months.”

The holiday numbers come as NRF is forecasting that retail sales during 2019 will increase between 3.8% and 4.4% to more than $3.8 trillion.